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Caught On Guard

Riva Pomerantz

They thought they were invincible, those IDF soldiers who were guarding the border between Israel and Egypt. That illusion was shattered when war broke out on Yom Kippur of 1973 and hundreds of supposedly unbeatable Israeli soldiers were transformed into prisoners of war begging for their lives. One of them, Zion Siton, shares his memories of those fearsome days.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

“We were completely caught off guard,” Zion Siton remembers, sitting in his tidy, tastefully decorated Jerusalem apartment. He is dapper, impeccably dressed. But his lips clench cigarettes, one after another, as he talks about those days that changed his life forever. “We were taken by such surprise. No one ever dreamed that anyone would start up with Israel, after the awe and might the world saw during the Six Day War. It’s exactly what the Torah says — ‘kochi v’otzem yadi’ — that was the deadly mistake the army made.”

That mistake would cost many, many lives. Before the IDF even had an inkling of what was going on, Egyptian commandos had silently drilled their way into Israeli territory and marauding warplanes droned overhead. Syria was advancing from the Golan Heights. The element of surprise, combined with Israel’s utter lack of preparedness would spell terrible death and destruction. Shocked, paralyzed, and weak, Israel quickly succumbed to enemy forces. The men in the watchtower overlooking the Egyptian border would be reminded of the poignant liturgy they had missed that year. “Who by water and who by fire … Who will live and who will die …” After three days of being shelled by the Egyptians, their end had come.

“Monday afternoon, the third day of the war, we saw an Egyptian tank approach our pillbox. Someone yelled at us to scatter and get into position, but at that moment one of our men was killed and another one was wounded. The air outside was dense and foggy with gunpowder. The Egyptians were coming closer and closer. There was no way for Israeli forces to come and rescue us. We thought we were going to die.” Zion looks away.

“I’m an only son — an only child. All I could think about in those moments was how my parents would feel when they got the news that I was killed. My entire life flashed before my eyes, from my earliest memories until that very moment. Our chances of survival were almost nil. The Egyptian army was working like clockwork; ours was one big balagan. We were totally powerless.”

At the last minute, the platoon ran into their underground bunker. Through one of the air holes, an Egyptian soldier lobbed a smoke grenade. Zion and his unit panicked. “Let’s surrender!” they yelled to their commander. Left with no choice, he agreed. One of the Jewish soldiers, Egyptian by birth, yelled, in Arabic, “Mussalemin — We surrender!” From outside the bunker, they heard the command, in guttural Arabic, “Raise your arms and throw down your weapons.” Zion was certain he was being taken out to a firing squad. As it was, the Egyptians had other plans. The nightmare was about to begin.

“When the Egyptians saw us coming out with raised hands, they were so startled they became almost giddy,” Zion remembers. “Until now, the Israeli was considered so strong and undefeatable, but now they saw the fear and resignation in us and their reaction was extreme. They began shouting, ‘Al-lahu Akbar’ and they rained down blows on us until every man was bloodied. Then they bound our arms together with electrical wire, tying every soldier to the one in front of him. There was not a moment that passed that they didn’t hit us — cruel, murderous blows.”

Photographs of the prisoners, their arms raised helplessly and morale trampled, were widely circulated by the triumphant Egyptian newspapers. From there, they made their way over to Israel, where anguished parents scanned the faces for signs of their children. But the faces were indistinct and many misidentifications were made. The IDF was unable to get a list of captured soldiers, and with so many fallen troops, uncertainty was the order of the day. When Zion’s distraught parents went down to the Shneller military base in Jerusalem, pointing to the first in a line of captives displayed in a black-and-white newspaper photograph, they were told flatly, “That’s not your son.” They left heartbroken. But the army was wrong; the captured soldier was Zion.


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