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“After driving another five minutes, we saw the ruins continue endlessly. What a tremendous waste.”

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The battles of the Yom Kippur War were so tactically important and unique that a board game, Suez ‘73, was created a decade later and continues to be highly sought-after. (Photo: forwardhq.blogspot.com)

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In October 1973, I happened to take a trip to the United States. When the Yom Kippur War broke out, the Association of Americans and Canadians for Aliyah contacted me and asked me to take a trip around the United States and Canada promoting aliyah. When I returned, I wanted very much to see what had occurred and when the Government Press Office offered a trip, I signed up. 

Monday, February 4, 1974 was to be the day that the first stage of military disengagement was to be completed, with the Egyptians beginning to thin out the third army in Sinai. 

At 2 a.m., the United Press International journalist whose name I cannot recall; Charlie Weiss (z”l), the Voice of America foreign correspondent; and I set out by car for “Africa.”

Major Walter Pick (who, in civilian life was Dr. Pick, deputy editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Hebraica), now in army reserves, was assigned by the army spokesman’s office as escort. (Dr. Pick was married to a childhood friend of Anne Frank – ed.)  

If you could follow our route on a map, it would be possible to see that we covered an incredibly large amount of territory in 19 ½ hours and, in fact, our car mileage gauge registered 600 miles.

In an hour from Jerusalem, by 3 a.m. we had reached Ashkelon. By 4:30 we were at El Arish, the so-called “capital” of Sinai, on the road, which connected Israel with Egypt. By 7:15 a.m., we were in Tasa. All along, as we drove across northern Sinai, the desert was so clean, so barren except for the ruins of tanks and trucks. 

When we came to the causeway, we crossed over the Suez Canal, stopped to take photographs and marveled that this was the Suez Canal! We continued along the coastal road, which led from Ismalia to Suez, not knowing how far we could continue. On our left was the Great Bitter Lake; on our right were lovely, tall palm trees. We passed evacuated mud villages and cornfields, and we wondered for how long had they been this way.

Going to within perhaps 39 miles of Suez, we were turned around, for this road was now being used as an evacuation road. In a short while, we were on the road to Fayid, where the British were encamped from 1936 to 1955. Along the roads were Russian tanks. We passed a United Nations point, and in the distance was Jebel Ataka, the beginning of the range of hills, which led to Cairo. Egyptian field artillery sat abandoned on the sands. Israeli tanks moved across the sand, and we passed camp after camp of Israelis.

Fayid—the British barracks now held Israeli soldiers; there were palm trees, mud villages, a Coptic church and a Mosque with a minaret. We were stopped but told if we wanted to walk through the main street of Fayid, we could take some pictures. It was like a ghost town except for the Israeli soldiers. A few months before, the sweet water canal, which supplied water to the settlements and to Fayid, had been cut off by the Egyptians, so the inhabitants were forced to leave. Some said it supplied water for 6,000 inhabitants in the area.

A soldier stopped us and asked if we would take his picture in the Fayid War Cemetery, where he had discovered a number of graves of Jews buried there between 1939 and 1945. He was not sure, but he thought one grave might be of a relative.

Soon we were headed back on the Suez-Ismalia road, parallel to the Bitter Lakes. Half a dozen large ships were on the lake. Barbed-wire fenced off the left side of the road where it had been mined. Then we stopped at Kilrit, the only place with an independent well and where Egyptian villages had remained. We were now 25 miles from Suez.

Some men came to talk with the Israeli soldiers guarding there.  They told the soldiers in Arabic, who translated in Hebrew for us, that in the village there were about 300 Egyptian men and perhaps five women. The rest of the women and children had fled at the time of the war. The day before, the border was 12½ miles further toward Suez; today, at noon, these soldiers expected the U.N. forces. Tomorrow, the border will move on back. 

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We drove down another road, parallel to an inner road to Suez. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there were soldiers walking across fields and hundreds of Egged, Dan and touring buses, which had transported soldiers from point to point. The road was filled with convoys and equipment. Tanks on the sand were moving away from Suez. More barren sand filled both sides. Behind every small hill were army camps and soldiers packing up and leaving behind huge refuse piles. In the distance, the range of hills was Kilometer 101.

We passed an abandoned Egyptian tank. At the end of this road we were at Jebel Janefra, a beautiful observation point, more than 2,500 feet high, overlooking the Bitter Lakes, where the Egyptian Third Army had sat. We looked at the Israeli bunkers, the ruins, the rubble and reflected on how our soldiers had been encamped overlooking the sections of the Egyptian army. 

We drove into a neighboring camp to get another permit, and saw soldiers gathered on one of the dunes. It was 10:30 in the morning; perhaps they were going to have a class.

No, it was a girl singer with a guitar-playing accompanist, there to entertain the troops.

We spoke with some soldiers and asked if anything was happening. They told us they had seen the movement of Egyptian tanks, infantry and artillery for the past few days on the road between Suez and Cairo. If the second point  of  agreement  was  completed  to  thin  out  their  troops,  Israel  would  then complete the withdrawal, however, no U.N. forces had been around.

By 11 a.m. we were on the main road to Suez again, but we had branched off 17 miles from Suez; now we were 75 miles from Cairo. We reached a barbed-wire barrier and stopped to talk with Israeli soldiers there. They had been waiting for the U.N. to come since 6 a.m. We continued to stop at other border points, and all were waiting for the U.N. They were planning to remain with the U.N. forces for about a week, then they planned to move back.

Veteran journalist Charles (Charlie) Weiss died in July 2021 in Jerusalem at the age of 93. He was a reporter and editor of the Jerusalem Post before becoming the regional correspondent for Voice of America; in that role he accompanied Sylvia Kaplan after the Yom Kippur War to view the aftermath of the IDF march into Egypt. (Photo: worldakkam.com)

On the inner road to Fayid, we passed village after village; shelled and damaged, modern two-story apartment buildings, sitting on the sand in the desert; they had been inhabited before the war. My mind began to wander. If the war had gone the other way, we might have passed Yerucham, Mitspe Ramon and Dimona, our desert towns. 

We laughed when a tank passed us with “Shalom Africa” in large cardboard letters on its front bumper.

We ate our picnic lunch in Fayid and felt a thrill to see the Israeli flags over the tent camps, sitting in the sand in the middle of nowhere. Along the road were electric poles, bare wires torn down. Some looked as if a huge force had pushed them, and they had staggered backwards; some had fallen flat. Some were headless.

We approached another road, completely lined with guns, trucks and tanks. Had they been lined up here intentionally? Was it a battlefield? It was literally a graveyard of ruins. Here was the so-called “Chinese farm” area. It must have been an unforgettable battle. It was so open, sandy, flat and vulnerable.

After driving another five minutes, we saw the ruins continue endlessly. What a tremendous waste. The shell holes in the road added to the reality. Every armored car had ten men; every tank had four men; every truck had a driver. We stopped and climbed around Egyptian tanks. 

Behind them, we noticed the Israeli tanks. We were told this battle cost the most casualties.

By 2:30 in the afternoon, we had left Tasa, and no one had seen the United Nations. Then the convoys started coming toward us, the reinforcements from our side. U.N. convoys passed for 5  minutes. What must those men from so many countries have thought as they drove along this sandy wilderness?

All afternoon until El Arish, we passed Bedouin, living by the sides of the roads and along the dunes in black tents and thatched houses. Young girls and boys tended the goats; a few camels walked nonchalantly on the horizon. Black-veiled women carried firewood on their heads.

Sharply countering an Egyptian attack across the Suez Canal that was in the works since 1968, the IDF entrapped the Egyptian 3rd Army and marched to within 99 km of Cairo. (Photo: idf-armor.blogspot.com)

By 5 p.m. we were at El Arish, the former capital of Sinai. Tradition says when Jacob left the Land of Canaan, on his way to Egypt, he put up a booth here and rested. The guide recommended stopping for “the best falafel anywhere,” at the El Arish “Hilton,” a roadstop stand to which no Hilton would want their name attached! The falafel was delicious, and the guide even took home a bag. 

We drove along the winding bumpy roads, got stuck in the mud and the three men got out to push and set us free. It was now dark, and we realized we were out of that mystical world the Israeli soldiers called “Africa.” We had been to Egypt. We had seen the battlefields, the army camps, the destroyed trucks and tanks—theirs and ours—and the never-ending procession of vehicles.  Then we saw small trucks and commercial vehicles and automobiles, and we were back in Ashkelon.

We continued driving, silent but listening to the news reports of what had happened today in Africa with the disengagement. We reached Jerusalem at 7:30 p.m.

We had traveled 17 1/2 hours and much of what we saw, we would probably never see again. Perhaps the army of Israel would never see it again either. In a few short weeks we knew some of this territory would be in U.N. hands and then in Egyptian hands. Whoever would hold it, we hoped they would hold it with their guns and tanks and artillery silenced and put away.

Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, food writer and author (Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel), nine cookbooks (including What’s Cooking at Hadassah College.) She lived in Israel from 1970-1980; she and her late husband, Barry, came to live in Jerusalem in 2008, where she works as a foreign correspondent for North American Jewish publications, lectures to senior citizen residences, walks in English in Machaneh Yehudah, the Jewish produce market. She has been book reviewing for 40 years. 

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

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