Israeli soldiers largely unchanged since '73

April 12, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TEL AVIV - "Kippur," an Amos Gitai film that will be shown in Owings Mills tonight, tells of a war from which Israel, after 27 years, still hasn't recovered.

On the morning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 1973, an Egyptian-Syrian attack caught Israel unprepared, shattering a myth of near invincibility built up since the Jewish state's stunning victory in the Six Day War of 1967 and leading a generation of Israelis to doubt the wisdom and competence of its leadership.

"We'll show those dumb Arabs they didn't learn from the last war," an Army unit commander boasts early on in the film, capturing the arrogance that quickly melted into a bloody fight for the nation's very survival.

The film opens on that Yom Kippur morning that many Israelis vividly remember, showing city streets devoid of cars and almost all pedestrians. Then the camera shifts to a couple slowly and ecstatically making love as the partners smear each other with finger paint.

Viewers may be taken aback by the coupling that occurs on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. But the scene becomes a metaphor for the conflict that ensues. As the lovers caress, the bright blue, green, red and yellow paints blend into a haunting purple-streaked grayish brown.

This becomes the dominant color of the film, a mixture of mud-caked fatigues, blood, faces blackened from explosives and stalled tanks on a rocky hillside.

Although the action focuses narrowly on a helicopter medical rescue team fighting to save the badly wounded from tank battles on the Golan Heights, the film depicts an aspect of Israeli society that defines Israelis as Israelis. Military service is mandatory and a rite of passage for young Israeli men and women.

Director Amos Gitai, now 50, was a 23-year-old reservist at the time of the Yom Kippur war, a trained parachutist who found himself on a helicopter rescue team. His character, Weinraub, and his partner, Ruso, start out gung-ho: "This time it's ours - we're the right age." But midway through the film, Weinraub tells his friend of a nightmare: "I dreamt that I was burning in a tank."

For Gitai, the Yom Kippur war marks one of the most important days in Israeli history.

"It was the first event that evoked major demonstrations. Soldiers went from the battlefield to the home of [then Defense Minister Moshe] Dayan and finally forced him to resign," he says.

The disengagement agreements with Syria and Egypt that followed the Yom Kippur war paved the way for a slow peace process. But the peace process failed to end the threat of war facing each new generation of recruits.

Take away the shaggy early-'70s haircuts and sideburns depicted in the film "Kippur," replace them with close-cropped skulls topped with ever-present wraparound sunglasses, and you see today's Israeli soldier - a young man or woman with the same swagger and some of the same bewilderment.

Instead of pitched tank battles, they're now engaged in a guerrilla war against a force close at hand - a disillusioned and bitter Palestinian population fighting to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The one missing element in "Kippur" highlights how far Israel needs to go before its recovery from 1973 will be complete. The film never shows the enemy - he's the unseen hand behind the deadly accurate weaponry that leaves the Golan Heights strewn with dead and wounded.

The adversary now is ever present and constantly visible. He could be a teen-ager with a rock or a hardened militiaman with an AK-47. And he's unlikely to be beaten in a few weeks or even a few years. The country remains divided over the lessons from the period. One camp in the country struggles for reconciliation with the Arabs, the other - currently dominant - braces itself for a war for survival.

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