Mordechai Gur: OBITUARY

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The Independent Online
Rarely has Israel been so profoundly shocked as it was by the suddenness and manner of Mordechai Gur's death yesterday. That one of the great soldiers of the Israeli armed forces, symbolic of their toughness and tradition of sacrifice, should have ended his life, as it appears, by his own hand, and his own gun, because he could no longer bear the pain of cancer, made an immense impact on the nation.

Gur's name was always associated with the most exciting moment of the Six Day War, in 1967, when, as a young colonel, he led his paratroopers in the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem, including Judaism's holiest shrine, the Western Wall. The nation reverberated to his famous broadcast words "The Temple Mount is in our hands".

Known throughout his life for personal bravery, Gur helped to create the slogan "Follow me", enabling Israel to achieve its astonishing victories over the Arab troops, but at a heavy cost in officers.

Even as a very young soldier, Gur attracted the attention of army commanders and politicians. He was a member of the ruthless 101 Unit commanded by Ariel Sharon, later the tempestuous general and politician, which was criticised even by some Israelis for acting too harshly in combat. When his men were ambushed in a pass in the Sinai War of 1956, Gur disobeyed Sharon's orders to fight his way out. After one exercise, an impressed Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, asked, "Who is this young man?" "This young man will one day be Chief of Staff," Shimon Peres replied.

Always liked by his troops, to whom he was known as "Motta", rather than the formal Mordechai, Gur was able to weld together the most unlikely material into formidable fighting units. Soldiers who were causing problems were sent to him and he managed to channel their anger into fighting the enemy.

Yet his mind was not always bent on soldiering. After fighting in the War of Liberation of 1948, he studied for three years at the Hebrew University. But then, as at a later period, he felt he had to give up studies to devote himself to soldiering, believing fervently that his country was in dire peril. However, his studies, including a year at the Paris Military College in 1959, helped him to write a number of informative books on Israel's military problems. His unusual interests and character were shown by his writing three books of stories for children.

After two years as head of Northern Command, Gur, the first officer in the Israeli army to be promoted from colonel to brigadier-general - bypassing major-general - was appointed military attache in Washington in 1972.

Thus he was not tarnished by the failures of the Yom Kippur War a year later. And his help in organising the giant American air-lift to Israel, pushed by President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, won the approval of Golda Meir's troubled government.

Returning to Israel after a war which had shaken the public's belief in its leaders, Gur assumed his old post, but the army was in turmoil and he was immediately seen as the best choice as the next Chief of Staff. The "war of the generals" was at its height as the debate raged as to who had been the principal sinners in the war. When the unlucky David Elazar was forced from his post as Chief of Staff by the Agranat inquiry commission - which strangely permitted Moshe Dayan to hold on to his post as Defence Minister - Gur was appointed Chief of Staff in 1974 and given the onerous task of reorganising the army and regaining public trust.

Gur had a momentous time in this new post. When, in June 1976, Arab gunmen hijacked an Air France plane, with 83 Israelis and many other Jewish passengers on board, and took it to Entebbe, Uganda, Gur was given the task of providing a feasible military plan to rescue them and outwit Idi Amin, the Ugandan President. Gur came up with the brilliant and daring "Hercules Plan" which won over the then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his cabinet. With the aid of the Kenyans, who provided fuelling facilities for the Hercules troop-carrying planes, almost all the hostages were freed in a triumphant action. Less decisive was the Litani operation into Lebanon in 1978 when Israel reacted to the terrorist capture of a bus near Tel Aviv, leading to many deaths and injuries. However, the limited scale of the operation was decided on by the government. Many critics felt the same caution should have been used in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon which caused grave divisions in Israel.

On only one occasion - and that a very historic one - did Motta Gur display less than his usual wide military and political knowledge. When the Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sadat, was about to set foot in Jerusalem on a journey in 1977 which led to the first peace between an Arab country and Israel, Gur suspected that Sadat was attempting to trick the Israelis for the second time.

Gur feared that, as in 1973, Sadat would attack an unprepared Israel. Without checking with the Defence Minister, Ezer Weizman, he publicly expressed his doubts and put the armed forces on alert. An incensed Weizman, whose faith in Sadat proved to be justified, came very close to sacking Gur in a furious encounter.

After leaving the army in 1978, Gur studied at the Harvard Business School and became a director of Koor Mechanics. But from 1981, when he was elected a Labour Member of the Knesset, his life was bound up with Israel's political life. Some observers saw him as a natural leader of the country. For two years from 1984 he served as Health Minister. When Labour won the election in 1992 the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who had fought side by side with Gur in the 1948 war, appointed him as his deputy at the defence ministry. The two worked very closely together, believing strongly in the necessity of making peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians.

Rabin paid him a moving tribute yesterday, describing him as a "special man, sensitive yet strong, a soldier and a civilian, a lover of books and writing and, above all, a friend on whom you could absolutely rely".

Mordechai Gur, soldier, politician: born Jerusalem 6 May 1930; Chief of Staff, Israeli Army 1974-78; member, Knesset 1981-95; Minister of Health 1984-86; Minister without Portfolio 1988-92; Deputy Defence Minister 1992- 95; married (two sons, two daughters); died Tel Aviv 16 July 1995.

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