Sunday, May 25, 2014

Liberating Shechem


Everyone has a story and living in Israel I feel as if I am surrounded by human history books. The gentleman in front of me in the bank, the woman sitting next to me on the bus, the man leading the prayers in the synagogue, and the lady processing my forms at the health clinic can most likely tell me the most spectacular tales. A prime example is Rabbi Yitzhak Spatz, a mild-mannered teacher who has taught several of my children, and continues to be a valued member of our community giving Torah lectures, leading prayers, and helping to make sure the synagogue runs smoothly. Rav Spatz has many tales to tell and one of the most interesting is how he helped liberate Shechem during the Six Day War.


In the middle of May 1967 Yitzhak Spatz was a young man in his mid-twenties. At that time he was living in Kibbutz Tirat Zvi where he had grown up.  One Friday night, after the Shabbat meal, a bus drove through the gates of the shomer Shabbat kibbutz. Obviously it was a military bus, no other bus would have entered, and the officer on board held written, emergency orders for a number of the young men from his unit. More buses followed in its wake and by the time the bus came for those in the Tank Unit, which Yitzhak was part of, he was ready.

The bus made numerous stops all night long at the many settlements of Beit Shean and Jezreel Valleys. With each stop two or three reserve soldiers boarded the bus and they slowly made their way to the base near Haifa. It took almost eight hours and was already dawn when they arrived. Yitzhak had had plenty of time to realize war was imminent and understand he was travelling on Shabbat in order to save lives.
From the base near Haifa he and his brigade were sent to another base near Safed. There they sat for three weeks training to attack The Golan Heights. Under Syrian control and overlooking the Huleh Valley in northern Israel, it was the source for countless sniper attacks. Those attacks had been endangering the lives of Israeli civilians for the past two decades. All the soldiers understood that had to end.

Finally the time for action arrived. It was the middle of the night when they were ordered to get into their tanks and go. Go where? They assumed to the Golan Heights but soon realized they were travelling south instead of east. No one knew what their goal was. They were forbidden to open their walkie-talkies, have any lights, and to speak above the quietist of whispers.

It was light when they stopped in an open field near the hospital in Afula. They were supposed to have a two-hour rest but they had not been there long when they heard and then saw two big planes flying nearby. Those planes were not marked, they obviously weren’t Israeli, and the soldiers had no idea to whom they belonged. Suddenly, Israeli combat planes materialized and the next thing the soldiers knew the big planes exploded. Later, they learned that the two planes were Iraqi, full of explosives, and on their way to attack Ramat Dov, the military airport near Haifa. At that time, though, all they knew was that the war had begun.

Everyone was full of excitement as they boarded their tanks. There was just as much excitement in Afula when the unit entered the town. Women, children, and old men threw candies and bags of goodies into their tanks. Some even managed to ask the soldiers for their names and their families’ phone numbers. At a time when cell phones were non-existent and many homes didn’t even have a private phone this was a true act of caring. Somehow the kind citizens of Afula would get word to the soldiers’ families that they were alive and well.

Those soldiers rode out of Afula heading south and ten kilometers away they crossed the Green Line. That green line was not a stripe of green paint on the ground. Rather, it was a series of cement poles two hundred meters apart that marked the border between Israel and Jordanian occupied territory. Growing up some twenty kilometers from The Green Line Yitzhak had been curious about the other side. There was no fence and he could have easily slipped between the poles but it was something he would have never dared to have done. As he and the others crossed the boundary on that day in June they felt they were entering a new frontier.

While they advanced they drove through little villages devoid of people. The soldiers found the Arab residents cowering in the caves that spotted the hills. They came slowly out of hiding with their hands held high in surrender, their faces full of fear, certain that they would be shot on sight. They didn’t understand that an Israeli soldier didn’t dream of touching a civilian.

The tanks continued to the northern Shomron that afternoon and kept moving south. Suddenly there was a command to stop. The scout had discovered a Jordanian Tank Corp hidden between the olive trees in wait for them just a few kilometers away. There was a shallow valley between the two sides and the Jordanians had not spotted the Israelis. The officer decided they would wait until dark to attack. Taking a lesson from Gideon (see Judges, chapter 7, verses16-25) the commanding officer divided the tanks into three groups. One attacked from the right, another from the left, and the third blocked the way from any Arab rescue units. Behind them the Artillery Corp sent flares so the Israeli soldiers could see the Jordanians. What they saw was astounding. The Jordanian soldiers were lounging outside their tanks and when the shooting began they fled on foot to the hills. In the morning Israel commandeered some thirty tanks in excellent condition. Another seventy or so were able to be repaired. Those tanks were high-quality Patton tanks that America had sold to Jordan.

It had been an easy battle and they were able to keep going south. They didn’t know to where until they arrived at the eastern entrance of Shechem. They passed a refugee camp and then Joseph’s Tomb, but they paid no attention. The Arabs of Shechem, thinking they were Iraqi soldiers, greeted them with applause and smiles, reminiscent of the Jews of Afula. It wasn’t until the jeep at the rear with its Israeli flag rolled into view that they understood their mistake. Then they fled into their houses. There were a few shots fired here and there but it was a painless entrance. The tanks didn’t stop until they reached the police station in the center of town.

It was at that moment Rav Spatz had a chance to absorb what was happening. Here he was in Shechem! Shechem, that Jacob bought. Shechem, where Dina was raped. Shechem, where Joseph searched for his brothers. Shechem, where the twelve tribes gathered to hear the blessings and the curses. He had returned to the Land of our Fathers. He felt as if he was flying in the air with all of our history in front of his eyes. Others in his unit felt the same but there was little time for more reflection. There was still a war to fight.

Another unit surrounded Shechem from the west and the mayor was found. He was given a choice. He could sign a surrender giving over the city and all the weapons or he could have war. He chose surrender. The Shomron had returned to Jewish hands!
Then the soldiers learned that Jerusalem was reunited! The next day Gush Etzion, Hevron, and Hevron Hills were liberated! Yitzhak and his unit were sent northwest and were among those to chase the Syrians out of the Golan Heights. The war was over.

It had been an incredibly quick war. Rav Spatz stresses that the battles were fast and relatively light. There were losses, twelve men out of three thousand from his unit were killed. Every life is an entire world but there were far less killed than what was expected. He believes The Almighty was there not with, but rather in front, of him and the other soldiers. He believes that HaShem put fear into the hearts of the enemy and He is the One who won the war.

shomer Shabbat: Sabbath observant


3 comments:

YMedad said...

For anyone wishing to see some photographs of Shchem's conquest and the tanks, there is a site
here that has some from 1967.

Ester said...

Being that Shmuel and Gershon are both in Tanks I found the site most interesting. Thank you.

Mirel Abeles said...

Interesting account! Glad you told me about it.