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Inside Egypt with Israeli troops
By Keith Graves
Former Middle East correspondent

In October 1973 on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria launched surprise attacks on Israel to recover land lost in the "Six Day War" of 1967.
Keith Graves accompanied Israeli forces across the Suez Canal

Days later, Israel made a lightning counter attack breaking through Egyptian lines and crossing the Suez Canal into the heartland of Egypt. The BBC's Middle East correspondent Keith Graves was there to break the news to TV audiences around the world.

It is hard to imagine it now, when mini cams and satellite video phones can beam live pictures from anywhere in the world, enabling viewers to watch breaking news in real time. But 30-odd years ago BBC television still covered major foreign news by shipping unprocessed film overnight for transmission at least a day after the event.

It was the Middle East War in 1973 that saw the first extensive use of satellites to give viewers same-day pictures.

Martin Bell, Michael Cole and I were the three television news correspondents sent to cover the Israeli side of the conflict.

In 1973, Egypt and Syria went to war with Israel to reclaim the Sinai Desert and Golan Heights lost during the 1967 'Six Day' war.
The Arabs made initial gains but retreated after sustained Israeli counter-attacks.
After two weeks, most hostilities ended. Egypt and Syria lost an estimated 8,500 soldiers and Israel, 6,000.
A 1974 peace agreement gave Egypt control of the Suez Canal while Syria regained some of its pre-1967 territory.
A 1979 peace agreement restored the Sinai to Egypt in return for recognising the state of Israel.

Being able to edit in the field (quite literally in the field - a shortage of edit rooms meant the BBC's editing machine was set up beneath a tree) and satelliting a story to London, knowing it would be screened the same night, was an exciting breakthrough.


The base for the world's television teams was in the coastal resort of Herzliyya, far from the battle fronts but the only place in the country able to process pictures and send them by satellite.

So a long drive was necessary to get anywhere close to the action. And then the problems really started.

Because of the enormous amount of material pouring into the film processing machine late on every day, each cameraman was limited to a single 10 minute roll of film for processing.

Good aerial dogfight pictures shot on the first roll of film might well be followed an hour later by a good tank battle, followed by a group of prisoners trying to surrender and finally, as the time came to head back for Herzliyya, an artillery duel.

The decision then had to be taken on which of maybe four rolls of film was going to be processed for that night's story.

Some very good picture sequences shot by some very brave cameramen never saw the light of day.

Special assignment

There had been rumours that the Israelis...had swept through the Egyptian front lines and crossed the Suez Canal
The Visnews film agency cameraman Martin Fletcher was called late one night to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) spokesman's office in Tel Aviv and told he would be leaving shortly, together with a military escort, as the pool cameraman for a special assignment "somewhere in the south".

There had been rumours that the Israelis, after several days on the defensive, had swept through the Egyptian front lines, crossed the Suez Canal into Egypt proper and established a position on Egyptian territory.

The Israelis were non committal and the Egyptians were denying it.

But why else would the Israelis want a cameraman to head south under escort unless the rumours were true?

Fletcher, an award winning cameraman and now a distinguished correspondent for the American NBC network (and as far as I know the only person ever to make such a transition), was an old friend.

Egyptian soldiers initially made advances in Sinai, but retreated after Israeli counter-attacks
The IDF officer organizing the trip south was, in civilian life, an executive with Marks and Spencer in London, who had returned to Israel as a reserve officer when the war started and was an avid viewer and admirer of the BBC.

Which is how I came to join the "camera only, no reporters" facility as Fletcher's sound recordist.

A five-hour drive through the night, most of it on roads and desert tracks churned up by tanks and artillery rounds and without lights lest we should attract enemy fire, found us just before dawn on the banks of Suez Canal.

Without realizing it we had passed during the night between the Egyptian 2nd and 3rd armies following the path of an Israeli armoured spearhead unit which has gone through a few hours before.

Under fire from Egyptian artillery, we crossed the canal on a hastily erected and far from secure pontoon bridge, and as the sun arose found ourselves in an abandoned Egyptian artillery fortification, with Israeli guns firing back over the canal onto the Egyptian soldiers now trapped on the far side.

It was an almost unintelligible line... but good enough for me to tell the news desk that I was inside Egypt with Israeli troops
The Israeli commander wanted us to tell the world that his troops had broken through the enemy lines and were now dug in, inside Egypt's international border.

But this was before mobile telephones. There was, I explained, no way we could get the news out.

No problem, he said. His radio operator, a London taxi driver when he was not answering the call for Israeli reservists to defend their homeland, would make contact with London via military headquarters back inside Israel.

Breaking news

And he did. It was an almost unintelligible line, far too bad to record a voice track but good enough for me to tell the television news foreign desk that I was inside Egypt with Israeli troops.

And so the BBC broadcast the news.

Defence Minister Moshe Dayan and major general Ariel Sharon
Few predicted Ariel Sharon, seen here with Moshe Dayan, would rise to become Israeli Prime Minister

Twenty-four hours later we arrived back in Herzliyya with the first pictorial confirmation that the Israelis were indeed inside Egypt.

The "one roll of film only" rule was ignored and Martin Fletcher's pictures were used all over the world.

I was admonished by the Israeli military spokesman for posing as a sound recordist and for failing to clear my information with the censor.

But it was a mild admonition. The fact that the BBC had broadcast the news was accepted by the whole world as meaning it was true.

Israeli morale was boosted, the Egyptian denials were silenced. In any case, I was not the only one involved in the operation who had broken the rules.

The Israeli military commander had disobeyed orders when he had crossed the canal.

If he had failed, the country's defence minister Moshe Dayan, said later, he would have faced a court martial.

As it was, he became one of the heroes of the war. His name was Ariel Sharon.

A BBC TWO series presents the best archive footage from five decades of BBC Television News.

1954-1974: BBC TWO, Monday, 5 July 2004, 1430BST
1974-1994: BBC TWO, Tuesday, 6 July 2004, 1430BST
1994-2004: BBC TWO, Wednesday, 7 July 2004, 1430BST

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22 Jul 03  |  Film

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