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Copyright 2004 Jerusalem Post
February 16

HEADLINE: Memories from Sultan Yakoub


The battle for Sultan Yakoub on June 12, 1982, was one of the bloodiest episodes of the Lebanon War. As the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) pressed northwards into the Bekaa Valley on the eastern front, a column of armored vehicles became ensnared by a Syrian ambush in a narrow pass.

Thirty soldiers died in a fierce day of fighting, in what was seen as the army's biggest intelligence failure of the war.

The bodies of three IDF soldiers - Zacharia Baumel, Yehuda Katz, and Zvi Feldman were never retrieved. Two IDF tanks disappeared during the battle: Katz commanded one, while Baumel and Feldman served in the other tank.

After 22 years, the IDF is reportedly set to announce its intention to declare the three MIAs as fallen soldiers whose places of burial are unknown.

For me, the battle remains a fresh memory. I was a 26-year-old student studying for final exams when Israel launched the so-called Operation Peace for Galilee. Like thousands of other reservists in front-line units, I was summoned by a late-night knock on the door.

Within days, my reserve paratroop battalion was speeding towards the battle site. We arrived at Sultan Yakoub on Thursday night - too late to help the victims of that day's deathtrap.

But we helped save three of their comrades-in-arms.

At first light Friday, our convoy of Armored Personnel Carriers (APC) edged through the battlefield. Early sunrays melted the heavy morning mists, revealing a horrible scene: Wreckage from the previous bloody day littered the landscape.

A still-smoldering tank with unraveled tracks stood at a precarious angle by a riverbank. Next to a bombed-out farmhouse, I saw the charred corpses of two Palestinian fighters. Like many of my fellow soldiers, it was my first experience of death.

We stopped by the blackened shell of a troop carrier to retrieve its useable ammunition. The potholed road was littered with discarded bandages and infusion bags. One soldier picked up a helmet, then threw it away in disgust. The insides were splattered with blood. On another helmet, we could clearly see a missile's entry and exit points.

Another decommissioned APC appeared unharmed from the outside. Closer inspection revealed a small hole near the driver's seat where a Russian-made RPG had punctured the armor, propelling a red-hot ball of lead into the metal death trap. All that remained inside was cinders.

By this point, it was clear that the death toll would be high. Rumors flew among the troops: Israel's battle strategy has changed. It's now an all-out war. Sharon is sending us to Damascus. Someone heard on his transistor that a cease-fire was being negotiated for midday.

Then the command came over our field radios: The hill at the end of the valley about a kilometer away must be taken immediately. Move, move, move.

There was no time for explanations. Muki, our platoon commander, screamed instructions to APC commanders to watch the hill overlooking the valley to our left, where the Syrians had positioned infra-red guided Sager missile batteries. (The knoll was nicknamed 'Sager Hill' from then on.)

Dozens of troop carriers bounced along the valley floor at top speed, passing more testimonies to the previous day's carnage. But military equipment has a habit of malfunctioning at the worst moment, and a fuel block rendered our APC a limping tortoise, lagging far behind the rest of the pack. I didn't see the Sager missile that flew narrowly over our heads, exploding harmlessly into a hillside a hundred meters to our right.

By the time our team disembarked, the battalion had already secured the hill. Its Palestinian militia occupants had fled into the rolling countryside beyond. Disappointed at missing the action, we climbed to the ridge and lay low behind some protective boulders.

I was helping bandage the unit s only casualty - a gentle family man whose chest was pockmarked by shrapnel from a stray bullet - when everyone screamed to take cover. Two Syrian MIG fighters were heading our way at a low trajectory from the north.

A pair of Israel Air Force F-15's miraculously appeared out of nowhere and gave chase. The first MIG was downed within seconds. The other veered off to the east, an M-15 in rapid pursuit. We cheered like football fans as a direct hit sent the enemy plane groundwards in a plume of smoke, its pilot parachuting to safety. The dogfight above our head lasted no more than 30 seconds.

Rahamim, the affable Yemenite crouching behind a rock close to me, thought he saw something move in the bushes a few hundred meters to the north, in no-man s land. Muki scanned the terrain through his binoculars, then shouted: Don't shoot! they're carrying a white flag.

Three figures were climbing the hill towards us. Rahamim hollered in Arabic to drop their arms but they disappeared into a fold in the terrain. Fearing a trap, we spread along the ridge and waited, fingers hovering near our rifles unlocked triggers.

I watched through my gun sights as the first head appeared from behind a rock about 30 meters way. "Hold your fire! We're Jews," he screamed.

One of them clutched a while tallit close to his chest, and burst into tears when he saw us. I gave him my canteen as he slumped on a rock. "We spent the whole night hiding from the enemy in a cave," he panted. "Our tank was wiped out, the driver killed. I thank G-d that we re still aliv

Our unit's doctor treated their injuries - light burns and grazes - and soldiers from another company helped them down the hill of hell into a field ambulance. They were exhausted and traumatized, but alive.

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