I feel as if I am surrounded by human history books in Israel. The gentleman in front of me in the bank, the woman sitting next to me on the bus, and the lady processing my forms at the health clinic can most likely tell me the most spectacular tales.
A prime example of a human history book is Rabbi Yitzhak Spatz, a mild-mannered teacher who has taught several of my children. Rav Spatz has many tales to share, including how he helped liberate Shechem during the Six-Day War.
In May 1967, Yitzhak Spatz was a young man in his mid-20s. At the 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 vehicle would have entered – and the officer on board held written emergency orders for a number of young men from his unit. More buses followed in its wake, and by the time one came for Yitzhak’s Tank Unit, he was ready.
It made numerous stops all night at the many settlements of the Beit Shean and Jezreel Valleys. At each stop, two or three reserve soldiers boarded as they slowly made their way to a base near Haifa. The trip took almost eight hours and it was already dawn when they arrived.
From the base near Haifa he and his brigade were sent to another base near Tzefat. 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 of countless sniper attacks. Those attacks had been endangering the lives of Israeli civilians for 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 traveling south instead of east. No one knew where they were headed. They were forbidden to open their walkie-talkies, use any lights, or speak above the quietist of whispers.
It was light when they stopped in an open field near the hospital in Afula and suddenly heard, and then saw, two big unmarked – obviously not Israeli – planes flying nearby. Israeli combat aircraft soon materialized and the next thing the soldiers knew, the big planes exploded. Later, they learned they were Iraqi planes, full of explosives, on their way to attack Ramat Dov, the military airport near Haifa. At that moment, they knew war had begun.
Everyone’s adrenalin was pumping full force as they boarded their tanks. There was much anticipation and excitement when the unit entered Afula. Women, children, and old men threw candies and bags of goodies at the soldiers. Some even managed to ask them for their names and 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.
The soldiers rode out of Afula heading south; 10 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 200 meters apart that marked the border between Israel and Jordanian-occupied territory. Growing up some 20 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 do. As he and the others crossed the boundary on that day in June, they felt they were entering a new frontier.
As 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 they would be shot on sight.
The tanks continued to 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 7:16-25), 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 30 tanks in excellent condition. Another 70 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. It wasn’t until the jeep at the rear with its Israeli flag rolled into view that they understood their mistake. Then, full of fear, 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 that Rav Spatz had a chance to absorb what was happening. Here he was in Shechem! Shechem, which Jacob had bought. Shechem, where Dina was abducted. Shechem, where Joseph searched for his brothers. Shechem, where the 12 tribes gathered to hear the blessings and the curses. He had returned to the Land of our Fathers. He felt as if he were 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 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 surrender the city and all their weapons – or he could have war. He chose to surrender.
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 who chased 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, but only 12 men out of 3,000 from his unit were killed. Every life is an entire world, but many fewer were killed than expected. He believes the Almighty was there not with, but rather in front, of him and his fellow soldiers. He believes Hashem put fear into the hearts of the enemy. He is the One who won the war.