Middle-aged soldiers with tommy guns over their shoulders and civilian briefcases under their arms; young men with the same weapon slung under one arm, a girlfriend‚ often in uniform‚ under the other. Israel: a gentle nation that knows it lives on the edge, and must be tough, and lives ready to transform itself on an hour’s notice from civilian life to a rough but efficient military machine. The sense of a people acting as one because they had to. That was what was beautiful about the war. These things, and the skillful young Israeli pilots in their French Mirage jets‚ and the brilliance of Israeli tactics were what the people who said this was a surgically neat war‚ a good war, saw.
The terrible things
The terrible things were not so easy to see. I did not see Israeli jets napalm the Jordanian refugees as they fled along the road to the west bank of the Jordan. I did not see the refugee camps in Gaza when the bombs hit them. There were reasons for both attacks: there were thousands of soldiers fleeing on the Jordan road among the refugees, and the Palestine Liberation Army melted back into the refugee camps in Gaza. Yet napalm is no more selective in Israel than in Vietnam.
The pitiful, hideous face of the war that I saw was in Gaza, in the Sinai Peninsula, and in an Israeli war hospital, in each case a few days after the fighting had ended. The road south from Tel Aviv to Gaza City runs thirty-five miles through green farmland. The trees and green crops seem to defy the dry soil and the heat. Everywhere one sees the symbol of Israeli agriculture: fields spotted with sprinklers that send sheets of water out, each in a thin circular whirl. From afar the clusters of sprinklers look like fields of some exotic water flower, glinting transparent in the sun. Across the border of the Gaza Strip the land is still fertile but drier.
Gaza City teems with Israeli tanks dodging between the burnt-out carcasses of Arab and Israeli vehicles. As one drives south from Gaza City along a palm-tree-lined road‚ the country becomes sandier and less fertile. The road is studded every hundred yards or less with burnt-out trucks, tanks, half-tracks, jeeps, and civilian cars. One learns to recognize what hit them. When they are flipped eerily on their sides, partly burnt but often partly unscathed, it was a mine. When the tanks are charred but undeformed except for one neat hole, it was usually a highvelocity shell from another tank that turned the inside into an inferno with its heat. When a new Mercedes-Benz looks normal on one side but has been turned into scrap metal on the other, it is because the far side was run over by a tank. When all that remains of a heavy truck is unrecognizably twisted metal and the supporting frame‚ it was usually a rocket or bomb from a plane.
At checkpoints Israeli soldiers stand guard. Walking past them or sitting in the shade of palms are robed figures with camels and mules loaded with sacks. Shawl-wrapped women, gaunt and hollow-cheeked, thread their way past the twisted metal forms carrying straw baskets. White flags still flutter from crevices of adobe walls. Sometimes the tall palms have been cut through as clean as if with a buzz saw by tank shells. Along the edges of the road walk teams of Israeli soldiers with long white metal canes, tapping like blind men in lines three or four abreast as they search for mines. The roadside flutters with thin lines of white tape with which they demarcate the areas they have searched and the areas they have not. Dozens of tiny “old-man” wizened children line the road. They wave and clap their hands at the passing vehicles‚ chanting “cigarette‚ cigarette, cigarette, cigarette.”
There is a whole absurd landscape to this war: shell cases shining copper against the green cactus and mudcolor sand; empty cans, crushed signposts‚ green pop bottles‚ cardboard food and ammunition cartons, steel anti-tank X’s with a third steel girder bracing them firmly into the ground. “They’re never going to clean this place up‚” a young Brazilian correspondent said dryly. “They’re going to leave it as a tourist attraction.”
There are stretches when the dry fields seem to be planted with dead men. Even when you cannot see them because they lie hidden behind the bushes of red and yellow semidesert flowers, the smell of death, always nauseatingly sweet and indescribable‚ remains.
Outside El Arish‚ the southernmost city of Gaza‚ we drove down to the cluster of houses where the Yugoslav UN mission had lived. We were a convoy of five cars carrying sixty liters of water and forty liters of gasoline apiece for the drive across the Sinai Desert. This beautiful ocean beach was the last pleasant thing we would see until we reached the Suez Canal. The houses were empty and had been ransacked. Three fishing boats with Arabic inscriptions on the prow lay with their nets on the beach, one filling with sand and being washed over by the waves. Submachine guns and Enfield 303’s were stacked against a tree while we ate sardines, fruit, olives, tuna, and watched the waves splashing toward us.
We drove through El Arish winding arid streets between more adobe walls — and out into the real desert. Then we were back in a new war landscape.
The Israelis and Egyptians had fiercely contested El Arish. First the Israelis took it; then the Egyptians staged a counterattack. When that had been overcome, the Egyptian flight to the canal with the Israeli armor behind them, and then passing them‚ began. The first sign of the flight was boots — black military boots — and shoes. They lay singly and in pairs, hundreds and hundreds‚ stretched along the road in the sand. The Egyptian peasants had taken them off because they could run faster — and because the boots marked them as soldiers. Then there were pieces of uniforms, khaki shirts and pants, often better made than the Israeli makeshift outfits. Then a detail of three Arab prisoners and three Israeli guards burying a dead
a Egyptian soldier. It took two of them working with a pick and shovel four minutes to scrape a shallow pit in the sand. Then they picked him up by the arms and a leg and threw him in, filling the sand in rapidly on top. An Israeli soldier put an Egyptian helmet on top of the mound.
A few miles later‚ without warning, we came upon an Egyptian soldier, his head and arms wrapped in bloody cloth, blinded. He stood swaying by the roadside, holding out a stick with a blood-smeared white flag on it.
Out in the desert again we found a man lying in the sand covered with a blanket. A bullet had made his legs useless. When he removed the cloth to show us the wounds, they were swarming with bugs. He said he was a civilian‚ and held out his papers. The Israeli captain guiding the convoy gave him two bottles of water and crackers. Seven news photographers cursing each other for throwing shadows made the captain repeat the act of handing the man water twice. Then we left him. The next day he was gone.
Sixty miles south of El Arish there were suddenly waves of bodies beside the road. Some lay sprawled as though running or sleeping. Others lay on their backs, rigid‚ seeming to tilt their sun-blackened faces upward toward the sky. Walking single file were six Egyptian soldiers‚ the first of hundreds trudging along the road to Cantara on the Suez Canal. They stood waving their hands high in the air while the Israeli soldiers accompanying the convoy searched them. One had a Russian rifle down the pant leg of his civilian clothes, a cartridge in the chamber. Several had superficial wounds. All were burnt by the sun, and their feet were beginning to become bloody and raw.
From there on we saw Arab soldiers constantly as the convoy sped by; barefoot, in groups of ten or fifteen or singly, walking between the bodies of their dead parallel to the tar road and the line of telephone poles. Some waved and smiled horrible frightened smiles as we sped by. Others flapped their white surrender cloths and chanted “Long Live Israel.”
I began to keep a tally: fourteen coming in off the sand dunes toward the road‚ their hands in the air; twenty-five walking together, two of them pushing a wounded man on a wagon. Some were old men who could not easily have been soldiers‚ although the Israelis claimed that they were almost all soldiers who had put on civilian clothes. But then‚ where were the populations of the tiny clusters of buildings near the road every fifty or sixty miles?
By evening we had passed over one hundred and thirty refugees on the road. Yet this was more than a week after their units had been defeated‚ and there were others I could not count and could barely see, too afraid still to come to the road, traveling through the dunes a few hundred yards away and parallel to the road.
Outside Cantara, the Egyptian town on the canal where the Israelis had stopped, the Israelis were gathering the refugees together as they came in from the desert. They had seated them in lines close together‚ the ranks forming a large irregular circle, on the sand. As refugees came in with their hands up, they were searched, deprived of belts, knives, and sometimes books or mementos. They were given crackers and water, and in cases of great immediate need, medical aid. Over five thousand refugees had passed through the camp already. From there they went to the canal, where Egyptian launches carried them to the western bank. The day before I came, a thousand had passed through; today there were four hundred and fifty.
In Cantara as elsewhere, the Israelis seemed humane captors. The refugees were not physically mistreated. The only shouting was being done by an Egyptian prisoner in a black leather coat appointed to keep the others in order. He moved up and down before the seated prisoners shouting menacingly, and occasionally swishing the air above them with a long stick.
The next day I watched the prisoners for several hours, By 8 A.M. the desert sun was uncomfortable even in the shade of the trucks. The prisoners sat without shade, in the same circle where they had sat all night. “We capture them‚ and then they make us work like beasts to provide food and water,” a Tunisian Jew sitting in the shade of a half-track said softly. “Do you know what it would have been like if they had won?” He drew his finger across his throat swiftly from ear to ear.
Blood and flies
And yet I could not help feeling sick at the suffering of these silent Egyptian peasants. They had been given uniforms and the most modern weapons and sent forward‚ told to prepare for a holy war against Israel. One old man who arrived carrying an earthen jug filled with brackish water had walked six days across the desert from El Arish. Afraid of the Israelis, he had hidden in the dunes during the day. At night he had come down to scavenge for food or water in the abandoned vehicles along the road. Like others he had drunk mostly water from the radiators of wrecked cars — brown and dirty water. His face had cracked into wide open wounds under the sun. His feet, wrapped in bloodstained cloth, buzzed with Hies as he stood waiting to be interrogated. The others were pitifully like him. Their stomachs were weak from the bad water they had drunk, but often their feet were too burnt to allow them to walk off a few hundred feet to relieve themselves.
Four or five had become too weak and feverish to do more than lie in the sand, heads on their hands or on another’s legs, eyes half open, letting the flies cover them and their wounds without moving. The Egyptian water boys would lift their heads and give them water.
Then it seemed to me that those who speak of the war as a just, good, beautifully executed operation would do well to specify what they mean. The spirit of Israel and of the Israeli Army was indeed an extraordinarily moving thing. But the destruction and suffering that beautiful spirit wrought were then doubly terrible. The Israelis had not strained themselves immediately after the battle to stop the desert from taking its toll on the remnants of the Egyptian Army. Nonetheless, they had acted with remarkably little hatred and with a measure of magnanimity toward the refugees. Instead of keeping them hostage against a peace treaty, or even against the return of their own few pilots in Egyptian hands‚ or against negotiations‚ they had helped ten thousand cross the canal. And yet what the desert and the war did to those Egyptians — most of them simple people with little more malice than the Israelis — was terrible.
Victory in Jerusalem
The war was over. I stayed on to watch Israel return to peace. Israelis are almost as remarkable a people at peace as they are at war. The Israeli part of Jerusalem in the days after the war ended fluttered solidly with more Israeli flags than one could imagine the Israelis had cloth and capacity to produce. On every street, every apartment — often every window - showed a flag, white with two horizontal blue stripes and a blue Star of David between them. The taped, crosshatched windows and the sandbags blocking windows and doors were still everywhere, though in some places fast-growing ivy had begun to creep over the sandbags, giving them a look of antiquity and peaceful permanence.
The streets swarmed with soldiers, all of whom still carried their weapons. In restaurants they would pile the submachine guns on one chair. A student discotheque called PussPuss was filled with soldiers and those just demobilized. A bartender still in uniform served drinks. It was the only time I saw Israelis getting drunk, since for the most part they all drink soda pop or fruit juice.
“I’m sorry,” said a young law student with blond hair, “I am just demobilized, and with the war and the cognac my head is reeling. You asked about the fighting in Jerusalem? The people who say it was easy to take were not there. The fighting was terrible. The Jordanians are good, very good soldiers, perhaps the best in the Middle East. I respect the Jordanian soldier. He is very brave.” He took another cognac and poured it down. “But we fight there like crazy men. I fight like a crazy man and did things I can’t imagine. And you know why?” He made an open fist and held it before my face. “Because of what Jerusalem means to us. Because of our whole tradition in Jerusalem. Because I was fighting to guard my own home, where my family lives, in Jerusalem. I don’t know if I could have done these things in Syria or Sinai. And all the time — I am no hero — all the time when we fight I am afraid. I am thinking the next moment — whoof! No more life, no more nothing.” He spread his hands flat on the bar. “No, the war was a terrible, terrible thing.”
For an account of how the army won the war see page 56.