After attacks by the terrorist group Hamas that started Oct. 7 drew Israel to war in the Gaza strip, Meron Medzini, 91, is feeling a sense of deja vu in Jerusalem. The current war started one day after the 50th anniversary of the start of the Yom Kippur war, and Medzini has been having flashbacks.
As press secretary to the Prime Minister Golda Meir during the war that Israel fought against Egypt and Syria in 1973, Medzini attended war cabinet meetings in Tel Aviv, which he says Meir conducted with two packs of Chesterfield cigarettes and innumerable cups of coffee. Medzini traveled with foreign correspondents to the frontlines, and to this day, he says he can still see the dead bodies and burning tanks vividly.
Medzini says one difference between then and now is a sense of “rage” that Israelis feel at how high the casualty count is already and the widespread social media coverage of civilian hostages and the deaths of women and babies. So far, there have been more than 1,200 Israeli casualties in about four days—a number that could surpass the 2,600 casualties in the Yom Kippur war, which lasted 19 days. Fifty years ago, Medzini says, “We were more angry at the fact that we were caught unprepared. This time we feel that there’s a totally different enemy.”
TIME talked to experts on the history of the Yom Kippur war, the lessons that came out of it, and how it reshaped Israel and the region. Abraham Rabinovich, author of The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East, describes the Yom Kippur War as both “the greatest military victory Israel has ever had” and “the most traumatic event in Israel’s history.”
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One similarity between the 1973 war and the 2023 war is the idea that Israel was caught off guard. The 2023 war started on a Saturday, when many Israelis stay home to observe the Sabbath, while the 1973 war started on Yom Kippur, a holy day when many Israeli businesses are closed so they can go to synagogue and fast. As TIME described the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war in the Oct. 15, 1973, issue of the magazine:
The fighting erupted when Egyptian troops surged across the Suez Canal and Syrian soldiers struck in the north on the Golan Heights. Both forces swept through Israel’s front lines and punched their way into Israeli-held territory under the glare of an afternoon sun. Backed by heavy artillery and strafing jets, they maneuvered with tanks and armored vehicles. Helicopters carried some Arab troops into battle. United Nations observers reported seeing Egyptians crossing into the Sinai Desert at five points along the 103-mile canal front; Syrian troops were spotted moving into Israel over the central section of the Golan Heights cease-fire line by other U.N. teams. The Syrians were soon stopped, but the Egyptians claimed that within hours they occupied nearly all of the east bank of the canal—a claim quickly denied by the Israelis. Though both Egypt and Syria insisted that invading Israeli troops had started the war, the evidence clearly indicated that the fourth Arab-Israeli war in 25 years had been launched by a massive Arab invasion. Within 24 hours, Israeli troops had stemmed the Arab thrust and were delivering a brutal counterattack.
News of the invasion sent Israeli civilians cleaning out their bomb shelters, filling their bathtubs with water and taping their windows for blackouts.
At several synagogues, services were interrupted as the sextons stood up and called out the names of young men who were being summoned to duty; other worshipers, on hearing the news, quickly folded their prayer shawls and departed; some returned later, in uniform, to bid their families goodbye. That day, Israeli warplanes buzzed Israel’s principal cities, perhaps as a signal for air force call-ups; but it was a curious occurrence, because planes had never flown over Israel during Yom Kippur before.
Israel would end up winning the roughly three-week war, empowered by weapons and military aid from the United States. Israeli forces marched across the Suez canal into Egypt and pushed back the Syrians from Golan Heights, launching an offensive in Syria. For now, any possibility of aid for Israel is stuck as the U.S. House of Representatives remains without a Speaker.
In 1973, Egypt’s goal in crossing the Suez Canal was to force Israel to the negotiation table to make a peace deal and get back control of the Sinai peninsula. According to Avi Shilon, a historian who teaches at Tel-Hai College in Israel, “The Egyptian and the Syrians didn’t plan to conquer Israel. They planned to hit Israel and to force Israel to go into negotiations. For them, it was enough to hit Israel to show that they can beat Israel in the first days, and they preferred to stop, so it was easier for Israel to launch a retaliation attack.”
After the Yom Kippur war, Prime Minister Meir of the Labor party resigned, and a rightwing government was elected for the first time, dominated by Likud (the party that the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has led). As part of a permanent peace treaty signed in 1979, mediated by the U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Israel returned the Sinai peninsula to Egypt.
That peace agreement would go on to form “the basis for future peace agreements between other Arab States and Israel,” says Alexander Burns, an expert on the history of the Yom Kippur war and professor of history at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.
The legacy of the Yom Kippur war lingers in other ways. After the Yom Kippur war, Israel lost a sense of security that it has never been able to fully regain. “It broke Israel’s image of invincibility and made Israel more humble,” says Boaz Atzili, a political scientist at American University’s School of International Service.
As Rabinovich describes the enduring trauma for Israelis, revived in recent days: “You wonder, ‘Okay, we won the war. But can it happen again?’”