Tel Saki and the Yom Kippur War
The two recent wars on the Golan Heights, the Six Day War and the more recent Yom Kippur War, are integral aspects of the history of this area. During the Six Day War, Israel conquered the Golan Heights after being subjected to years of indiscriminate Syrian firing on the settlements around Lake Kinneret. During the Yom Kippur War, the Syrians attempted to capture it back, and almost succeeded. That they failed is due entirely to Israeli heroism. The bunkers and observation areas on Tel Saki in the center of the Golan and on Mount Betal in the north of the Golan are reminders of the sacrifices made by the young soldiers manning these sites in the face of incredible odds.
VISITING TEL SAKI:
Directions: Enter “Tel Saki” into Waze.
Time: The bunkers, memorial and surrounding countryside can all be viewed within about 30 minutes.
Admission: There is no admission charge or brochure. The site is always open. For entering the bunkers beyond the entrance, a flashlight will be needed as the bunkers are not illuminated.
TEL SAKI AND THE YOM KIPPUR WAR
On October 6, on Yom Kippur day, at 2.00 pm exactly, Syria and Egypt attacked simultaneously on the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula. Israel was unprepared. This was not because it did not know about Egyptian and Syrian war preparations but because it chose to ignore the many warnings it was receiving. There was hubris among the influential leadership of the Israel Defense Force (IDF), and a belief, particularly in the Intelligence branch, that Egypt and Syria were not ready for war. This hubris prevented a preemptive air attack that could have destroyed the Egyptian army waiting to cross the Suez Canal and neutralize the deadly SAMS missiles on the Egyptian border. It also prevented Israeli reserve forces from reaching the Golan Heights and Sinai before Syrian and Egyptian forces had already advanced across the border. Israeli military strategy relied on having sufficient warning to mobilize its reserves to prevent such an eventuality. The Chief of Military Intelligence also refused to activate sophisticated listening devices planted in the communication system of the Egyptian command lest they be exposed. When the reserves reached the front, they sometimes found that their tanks not fully ready for battle and at other times loaned out to other units. Fortunately, the civilian population of the Golan was evacuated prior to the war.
The Syrians attempted to break across the border in two places in the Golan. One was in the north at Queitra Gap, a pass south of Mount Hermon overlooked by Mount Betal and Mount Avital. The second was in the central Golan close to Tel Saki. The Israelis had 3,000 troops, 180 tanks and 60 artillery pieces to face off against 28,000 Syrian troops, 800 tanks and 600 artillery pieces. In addition, the Syrians deployed two armored divisions from the second day onwards. In both places, the Israelis elected to stay put and fight despite the overwhelming odds.
At the Kuneitra Gap, Israeli tanks were able to hold the Syrian advance and the Syrians withdrew after 3 days of battle. During this time, the Syrians lost over 500 tanks and armored personnel carriers while the Israelis lost 60 to 80 armored vehicles. One source describes what the Prime Minister Golda Meir saw through her binoculars when she viewed what would later be called the Valley of Tears “the distant valley strewn with the hideous debris of war: pulverized howitzers, blown-out trucks, banged up armored personnel carriers, burned-out tanks punched through with bull’s eyes, some still smoldering – and the dead. The stench of death, cordite, diesel and exhaust was overwhelming.” However, in the area of Tel Saki the Syrians did manage to overcome the tank ditches and dense minefields and advance into the southern Golan.
Tel Saki is one in a chain of extinct volcanic hills on the Syrian border. The local commanders did not appreciate at first that this was a full-scale war rather than a border skirmish and they sent out a small party of soldiers to the observation post on Tel Saki on a reconnaissance mission. They soon found themselves in the middle of an artillery and air bombardment of settlements, roads and army bases over the entire Golan, followed by a Syrian advance of two-thirds of their attacking army. Nevertheless, these soldiers and other forces that had made their way to Tel Saki, as well as the nearby bases, confronted the Syrian army. Two rescue parties were sent out to Tel Saki from a base at El Al, but both were unsuccessful and were destroyed. The paratroopers and infantry at Tel Saki soon ran out of ammunition, food and water. Holed up in the bunkers, many of the soldiers were dead, and those still alive were injured.
The story ends well for Israel. With the arrival of the reserves to the battlefront in full force, the Syrians were pushed back to the pre-war ceasefire lines by October 8, and those in the bunkers at Tel Saki were rescued. On October 11, Israeli forces pushed into Syria, broke through Syrian defenses and were able to occupy positions deep in Syria, to 30 Km from Damascus. A ceasefire was accepted by the Syrians on October 23.
In many ways, this victory could be considered even more miraculous than the Six Day War, in that Israel managed to turn around a defeat on two fronts and advance into enemy territory. This was hardly a joyous victory however. There had been many casualties. Israel had to rely on a huge American airlift when it ran out of supplies and equipment. There was anger throughout the country about the army’s lack of preparedness, to the extent that the government of Golda Meier was forced to resign. Nevertheless, Tel Saki is a fitting memorial to the courage and heroism of the regular and reserve soldiers who helped turn this war around.