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History repeating itself

The surprise Palestinian attack on Israel triggers for me a graphic fifty-year flashback to the start of the Yom Kippur/Ramadan war of October 1973.


The two events invite grim comparisons. Both are violent clashes between Arabs and Jews rooted in the same injustices that have torn the Middle East apart for nearly a century.


The 1973 conflict began, like the current one, with a devastating Arab attack, though of a very different kind from the Hamas onslaught last Saturday. Back then it was a battlefield of regular armies, Egypt and Syria against Israel, not a terrorist campaign against a state or a people. The fighting fifty years ago was also preceded by an equally extraordinary failure of Israeli intelligence.


At the time, I was Reuters bureau chief based in Beirut. It was also a Saturday. I was in the office writing a Middle East weekend news roundup. Local staffers were monitoring the main Arab radio stations. There was high tension in the region. “Sabre rattling” was in all the world headlines.


I had just phoned a cross-section of contacts, mainly international diplomats, to get their feel for the danger of a new Arab-Israeli war. The consensus was ‘not yet’. Maybe months, even years away.


I started typing a lead to the effect that there would be no war that weekend, according to diplomatic sources.


At that precise moment, 2 pm, one of our monitoring editors in the office shouted: “Cairo reporting Israeli attack in Sinai.” Simultaneously another colleague shouted: “Damascus says Israel attacking on Golan Heights.”


I quickly tore my half-typed paper out of my typewriter and hid it in my pocket, to be quietly destroyed.


My colleagues were already sending two snaps in English to the Reuters international wire. The latest Middle East war was under way.


The usual confusion of conflict was compounded by doubts about who started it. Arab news broadcasts initially blamed Israel, and praised the Egyptian and Syrian armies for fighting back so successfully.


In the war of propaganda, the Arabs started with a winning hand. Their forces did in fact make striking initial gains against the Israelis, caught unawares on their Yom Kippur religious holiday. Some western commentators at first refused to believe the Arabs’ success.


Battlefield reports and satellite surveillance soon helped Reuters and other news sources to correct the picture. But then, four or five days later, the tide of war turned and Israeli forces regained lost ground on both the Sinai and Syrian fronts.


The war lasted only three weeks, brought to a halt by international pressure and logistical constraints. It was fought at two levels. On the ground and in the air, it was a classic clash of regular armies, with infantry and artillery, massed tanks and combat aircraft. In the media and public opinion, it was at first a murky struggle between facts and falsehood which gave the Arabs and Palestinians a new, if short lived, sense of self confidence.


The outcome of the war had long-term consequences. Historians say that although Israel won a tactical victory, with the help of rapid rearmament from the United States, it lost its sense of invincibility. The Arabs, on the other hand, dared to put some hope in their own military abilities and in the so-called peace process. In the years to follow, diplomacy and political influence played a greater role than force of arms in furthering rival interests in the region.


Meanwhile, as the peace process faltered, the cause of Palestine has been largely championed by popular uprisings (intifadas) and irregular commandos (militants or terrorists?) from Fatah to Hamas. Today’s cruelty against civilians is a direct descendant of years of brutality in the region, in the ancient land of Palestine and the modern state of Israel.


No end to violence is in sight, particularly this week. ■