Middle East: The Quickest War

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Much the same mixture of exhilaration and invective marked the first flush of war in the other Arab capitals. "Kill the Jews!" screamed Radio Baghdad. A Syrian commander offered the rash prediction to radio listeners that "we will destroy Israel in four days." In Damascus, schools were closed, more in celebration than precaution against air raids, and schoolchildren, singing rhythmically, filled sandbags and placed them around public buildings. Having no prepared shelters, the Syrians hastily converted two discothèques. In Beirut, supplies of laundry bluing, vegetable dye and blue paint quickly ran out as drivers rushed to darken their headlights. The nouveau-modern Phoenicia Hotel painted all its windows on the first five floors in blue so that some of its guests could have light during the blackout.

Ice-Cream Trucks. Tel Aviv's residents got the news only 30 minutes after the first air-raid siren, as Radio Kol Israel interrupted its regular broadcast to announce that heavy fighting had begun against "Egyptian armored and aerial forces which moved against Israel." Lively Jewish folk tunes, rousing Israeli pioneer songs and stirring military marches, including the theme song from The Bridge on the River Kwai, filled the air waves until Defense Minister Dayan came on. His message, like the man, was economical and blunt, concluding with: "Soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, on this day our hopes and security are with you."

Only three-fourths of Israel's reserves were mobilized when war began. Now the radio read out the code names of the remaining units: Love of Zion, Close Shave, Men of Work, Alternating Current, Open Window, Good Friends. Throughout the tiny nation, youths and middle-aged men scrambled into the streets, half in uniform, half in mufti, bundles and knapsacks thrown over their shoulders as they headed for their prearranged secret rendezvous with buses.

The buses used to deliver the reservists to their units in the field were often reserves too: laundry trucks, ice-cream trucks, even taxis and private cars drafted along with Israel's men and women. All were elements of a superbly organized and functioning system that Major General Dayan helped to create between 1953 and 1956 when he was Israeli Chief-of-Staff. Israeli tanks, each manned by a single regular of Israel's 50,000-man standing army, waited in convenient tank parks for the two or three reservists required to complete each crew. The tanks were ready to move out, complete with helmets, razors and toothbrushes. Each crew had been assigned battle sectors, rendezvous points and objectives. Israeli Intelligence had tracked the Arab enemy to the last desert dune. The system worked so well that Israel was able to field a fighting force of 235,000 men within 48 hours.

Trapping the Remnant. Modern desert warfare is essentially tank warfare, supported by infantry and aided by air. At the start of the war, both Israel and Egypt had some 1,000 tanks each. The Israelis' were largely American and British; Nasser's were Russian, like most of his other equipment. Some 800 on each side squared off to battle for the Sinai Peninsula, a hell's amphitheater of ankle-deep, choking velvet sand broken by the ocher slag heaps of hills and occasional grey-green scrub.

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