It is a pleasant autumn evening in October. Seventy-year-old Medhat Mohieddin, a former soldier in the Egyptian army, is turning on his TV to follow the news and is somewhat taken aback to hear Sudanese officials defending a possible normalisation agreement between Khartoum and Tel Aviv.
He is not completely surprised, however, because “it has been happening for over a month now — this would be the third deal in less than two months. I understand that things are going forward, but I am wondering if these normalisation agreements are fair to Arab rights or if Israel is getting too much in return for too little.”
Mohieddin, who nearly died during his participation in the October 1973 War between Egypt and Israel, says he cannot help but ask whether the current normalisation deals with Israel “are doing justice to the huge sacrifices that Egyptian soldiers have made to defend Egyptian and Arab rights.
“I think of the many days and nights that we spent under Israeli siege in Kabrit, and I recall the brave men who died during this war, and I ask what they would say now if they were watching us. Would they say we were honouring their sacrifices, or would they say otherwise,” Mohieddin asked.
Mohieddin was a soldier in Battalion 603 that endured a harsh Israeli siege for over four successive months after the UN Security Council announced a ceasefire in the 1973 War on 22 October 1973, a little over two weeks after Egyptian soldiers crossed from the west side of the Suez Canal to the east side, where they brought down the Bar Lev Line that Israel had earlier claimed was invincible.
The bravery and resilience of this battalion, part of Brigade 130, was shown in its mission to control crucial points around the Bitter Lakes, through which the Suez Canal runs. It was tasked with stopping the Israeli army from carrying out a counter-attack that could have stopped the crossing of Egyptian soldiers that started on the afternoon of 6 October.
The crossing of battalions 602 and 603 of Brigade 130, planned almost two years ahead of 6 October, was successful. However, controlling the crucial points around the Bitter Lakes proved more difficult, and the Israeli army managed a counter-offensive that harmed Battalion 602. Battalion 603 was instructed to take an Israeli strongpoint at Kabrit.
“Taking over Kabrit was not an easy mission, because just as Battalion 602 had sustained considerable damage, we in Battalion 603 had suffered damage too, though not as bad,” said Khalil Al-Mahdi, lead military engineer in Battalion 603.
According to Al-Mahdi, now in his mid-70s, a man conscripted after getting his engineering degree, it was the dedication and resolve of the men of the battalion and the tough training they had received since the brigade was established in January 1972 that made it possible for Egyptian soldiers to take control of the strongpoint and to hold Israeli soldiers hostage.
Like Mohieddin, Al-Mahdi credits the military skills and bravery and dedication of leader of Battalion 603 Ibrahim Abdel-Tawab for helping the two-thirds of the battalion that survived the Israeli attack to take control of the strongpoint on 8 October just as the crossing was being secured.
However, as Al-Mahdi recalls, getting hold of the Kabrit strongpoint was one thing, and keeping it was quite another, because “the Israelis were really determined to regain it in view of its exceptional strategic importance,” he said.
“It was a tough war, and we were short on military equipment, but we never lost our morale or resolve, and we were willing to do whatever it took to keep in control of this strongpoint. We knew that our presence there was essential to curbing the counter-offensive of the Israelis or at least to limiting it if it had to happen,” Al-Mahdi said.
The resolve of the soldiers of Battalion 603 was not undermined by the news that they received from headquarters about a breach the Israeli army had made on 16 October, then managing to cross to the western side of the canal and to encircle the Third Army.
Al-Mahdi, being in a leadership position, was informed through the chain of command. Mohieddin learned about it from the radio.
“The broadcaster was reading a statement from the Armed Forces, saying something to the effect that the Egyptian army was still in control of Ismailia. It was baffling — I was not sure what to think or what to believe because of the sad experience of the false news that the radio had broadcast during the early days of the 1967 War, suggesting a victory for the Egyptian army when the situation was in fact disastrous,” he recalled.
However, neither Al-Mahdi nor Mohieddin were prepared to entertain the remotest thought of surrender. “Not at all — on the contrary, we were determined to prevail, and we knew that our resilience would help those officers and soldiers that had been encircled by the Israelis,” Al-Mahdi said.
According to the testimony of both men and that of Ahmed Ali, another soldier in Battalion 603 now in his early 70s, with Abdel-Tawab in charge demoralisation was not something they ever considered.
Abdel-Tawab had taken control of the battalion after his senior officer Ahmed Shoeib was seriously wounded and had withdrawn from the line for treatment. Abdel-Tawab, Al-Mahdi said, knew that the battle was going to be long and tough, and he ordered the use of limited military resources to face up to possible Israeli attack.
One mission that Abdel-Tawab assigned to Al-Mahdi was to decide the extent of the landmines that Israeli soldiers had planted around the strongpoint, organise the escape of the soldiers of the battalion by a miracle, and replant the mines in a way that could help the Egyptian soldiers to defend it.
“The plan worked — when the Israelis sent in their tanks to regain the strongpoint, they drove into the landmines. This helped us considerably in fighting back,” Al-Mahdi recalled.
Demoralisation was not a possibility, not even when Israeli fighters bombarded the strongpoint with bombs, causing heavy causalties. “We were committed to resilience. We would bury the martyrs, pray, and move on. There was no time to grieve and no time for us to think that we might also die soon. Even if we thought that death was near, our focus was not on how to live but on how to make sure the strongpoint was not lost to the Israelis,” Al-Mahdi said.
By 22 October, Al-Mahdi added, the Israeli army had sent in enough soldiers to make it difficult for the members of the battalion to move.
“There was little food and water, mostly taken from the strongpoint, and our military equipment was low. We were fully aware of the fact that at any minute things could take a disturbing turn,” Al-Mahdi acknowledged. “But somehow we did have the strong faith that we could prevail. We just thought that there was some power that was there for us,” he said.
“Clearly, the power of God was on our side — it must have been. How else could we have believed in the chances of survival for wounded soldiers that we had put on floating pieces of wood and put in the canal, hoping that the current would take their bodies in the direction of Suez where they would receive treatment,” Al-Mahdi asked.
For close to three successive weeks, the members of Battalion 603 continued their fight, while observing the Ramadan fast and hoping for some sort of breakthrough. However, when successive resolutions of the UN Security Council failed to give them a clear exit plan, they knew that their ordeal was going to be much longer than they had at first thought.
The siege continued even after the signing of the first disengagement agreement between Egypt and Israel in Geneva on 18 January 1974. And the signing came just one day after Abdel-Tawab was killed in an Israeli attack.
“This is not a moment that any of us will ever forget, no matter how long we live. Anyone who was alive then and saw the death of Abdel-Tawab will always remember that moment,” Ali said.
Al-Mahdi and Mohieddin gave detailed accounts of the moment and recounted it with tears in their eyes. “When the Israelis knew that they had got him, and when they saw that we had buried him, they fired 21 gunshots in honour of his exceptional military resilience,” Al-Mahdi said.
Mohamed Al-Dessouki, the chief of operations, took over the battalion until an agreement was reached to end the siege on 22 February when the soldiers and officers started to move back. “Our hearts were broken to be leaving the bodies of the great men whom we had lost, but we were very proud that we had never lost control of the strongpoint, no matter the pressure and no matter the difficulties,” Mohieddin said.
When they got to Suez, the surviving members of the battalion took a train to Cairo and then on to Alexandria, the base of Brigade 130.
“At every single station that the train stopped at we were cheered and welcomed by the people and by military commanders there to salute us,” Al-Mahdi recalled. He added that when they got to Alexandria and off the train, the drivers of the military vehicles could barely make it through the streets as people were crowding around to salute the heroes.
When all the members of the battalion came together in Alexandria to be honoured by their commanders, they were pleasantly surprised to find that some of the wounded men that they had put on floating wooden boards had made it.
“They had been rescued by the Red Cross, but only some of them, unfortunately. Some had also died,” Al-Mahdi said.
“We knew the details of the military situation when we got back. We had hoped that there would be no breach of the Canal, but we felt we had done everything we could to free our land that Israel had taken by military force,” Mohieddin said.
According to Ali, there was also an impression that there would be no more wars. “I’m not sure how, but it was very clear in my mind at the time,” he said. Ali was also “not really surprised” by the later decision of late president Anwar Al-Sadat to pursue a visit to Jerusalem and start peace talks with Israel in 1977.
“I am not at all saying I expected this, or that I even thought it could happen, but Sadat was the king of surprises. He would always do the thing that nobody would think was going to happen,” he said. “When we went to war on 6 October 1973, we scarcely believed that it was happening because we had not believed it was going to happen,” he added.
Ali said that he had never had any resentment of the decision by Sadat to pursue a negotiated settlement with Israel to regain the remainder of Egyptian territories. “We went to war to get Sinai back, and when we were held under siege for over four consecutive months we were only thinking that we are there to help to regain Sinai. That was everything to us,” he said.
Mohieddin is not willing to claim that he was neutral about Sadat’s decision to pursue a political settlement with Israel. However, he is willing to say that “when all is said and done, it was Sadat who managed through war and through negotiations to bring back the land.
“When I compare the deal that Sadat made in the late 1970s after the October War with the normalisation deals that Israel has been getting from several Arab countries over the past few weeks, I have to say that Sadat’s deal was much better,” Mohieddin said.
“The war was really very tough, and we had to prepare for it hard and long,” Al-Mahdi recalled. “It was not just tough for those on the front either, because we were there to die to get back the land. It was also very tough for the families of the soldiers and officers who were waiting and praying for their safety back home,” he added.
Al-Mahdi himself was on the front line along with two other brothers who were also doing their military service. For his wife, to whom he had just got married before the war started, and for his parents, every day of the four plus months was one of endless pain.
Upon the return of the members of the battalion to Alexandria in February 1974, he said, there were families there waiting, hoping to see their loved ones even though they had already been notified that their sons had lost their lives during the war.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly