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“Like Star Wars and Fiddler on the Roof” — Life with the Sinai Field Mission

The relative peace between Israel and Egypt, particularly on the Sinai, has been one of the few bright spots in the Middle East in the last 40 years. In 1975, Israel made a key compromise to withdraw from the strategic Giddi Pass and Mitla Pass in the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for monitoring by third parties. The United States established the Sinai Field Mission to monitor access to the passes and carried out reconnaissance flights. Political leaders in both countries eventually praised the system. The increased cooperation helped lay the groundwork for the 1979 Camp David Accords, signed by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, which provided for a full Israeli withdrawal from Sinai.

The initial peacekeeping force was provided by the Sinai Field Mission, while efforts were made to create a UN force. SFM operations officially ceased in April 1982 when the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) came into existence. Russel Sveda was one of the first Americans to serve in the SFM, from December 1977 through February 1979 and tells some fascinating stories about what it was like to work on a desert frontier he describes as “Star Wars” with the cast of “Fiddler on the Roof” — and that was just the Israeli camp.

The international camp had barracks that were originally meant to be a Holiday Inn in Waco, the Finns built their own sauna, while the poor Indonesians looked lost amidst all that sand. He provides great insight into the Egyptian and Israeli psyche and offers a touching anecdote of an Egyptian commander who was so moved by the kind treatment of his Israeli captors that he was able to convince another Egyptian platoon to surrender.  And for one poor soul, you just can’t ever seem to escape Greenville, Texas. Read Sveda’s account of the tree-chopping murders in the DMZ, his ride on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and his fight for gay rights.


As the Israelis would say, “The Egyptians had us surrounded from within”

SVEDA: The Sinai Field mission promised a degree of interest and excitement that I could probably never find except on the visa line in Seoul. The Sinai Field Mission just seemed like a very good of breaking the mold…

Everybody had to be a volunteer. The State Department brought me back for a month of consultations, but not knowing whether to teach me Hebrew or Arabic…Even a few weeks of either would have helped. In any case, they decided to teach me nothing…

One of my consultations was with a distinguished former diplomat. I confided to him that I really knew nothing about the Middle East at all and I really felt unsure of myself. He said, “Young man, whenever anybody says anything about the Middle East, listen carefully, nod gravely, and say ‘Yes, but the situation is more complicated than that.’ You will never be wrong and you will get a reputation for wisdom far beyond your years.”…

You really have to look to the Yom Kippur War, which Israel fought with Egypt in 1973. What happened was that the Egyptians practiced crossing over the Nile and crossing the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal at that point was half held by Israel…So, when Israel let its guard down at Yom Kippur in 1973, the Egyptians, having practiced, crossed over the Suez Canal and got to the other side. They were so triumphant that they forgot that they had never practiced anything beyond crossing the Suez Canal. So, they found themselves on the other side of the Suez Canal not knowing at all what to do. But they just stayed there. The Israelis suddenly awakened from their inattention, crossed south of them, and encircled them on the other side of the Suez Canal.

Then Kissinger, who was then Secretary of State, intervened and told the Israelis that they should come to an agreement with the Egyptians because the Egyptians had successfully crossed to the other side of the Suez Canal. As the Israelis would say to me later, “The Egyptians had us surrounded from within.” But this gave the pretext for recognizing some Egyptian gain since the Six-Day War in 1967. Kissinger negotiated the Sinai Agreement, which was very interesting.

The Israelis would not give up their position at the Gidi Pass. I have to explain a bit about the geography of the Sinai. The Sinai is this huge triangle of desert which separates Suez from Israel and from the port of Aqaba. The northern part, there is a sea road, a traditional road, that goes along the Mediterranean Sea. Below that, there are huge sand dunes, and I mean huge. We’re talking 600-700 foot tall sand dunes.

Their location shifts from time to time because they are sand dunes, very much like on the beach. You go to the beach one day and you see them. You go to the beach the next day, they’re in a totally different location. So, for all practical purposes, that area is impassable.

In the southern part of the peninsula, you have very rocky desert leading up to the heights of Mount Sinai, where St. Catherine’s monastery is. But this is also impassable. As a practical matter, there is, aside from the sea road, only one way through the Sinai. That is through two passes called the Gidi and the Mitla passes. The Gidi and the Mitla Passes are on the eastern end of a large plateau like a sheet-cake with 150-200 foot cliffs. It’s as if some giant had cut a piece of cake out of it which was 10 miles wide and 20 miles deep, a perfect rectangle. At the corner of one rectangle, you had the Gidi Pass. At the corner of the other, the Mitla Pass.

As a practical matter, the Gidi Pass was the more important one because that was the direct connection between Tel Aviv and Cairo, depending on which way your army chose to start and which way your army was going to finish.

So, at the edge of this plateau, at the northwestern corner of this cut into the sheet-cake, the Israelis had erected a station which we called the Death Star, after the movie “Star Wars.” The Death Star was absolutely the ne plus ultra of electronic command centers. The Israelis had a perfect electronic view of all of the Sinai from there. They directed all of their flight training there in the Sinai, which was a very important place because it was empty and there was a lot of room for their fighter planes to go and play games. It also monitored the Suez Canal. You could actually see the Suez Canal some distance away in the clear desert air and…also Cairo…So, the Israelis did not want to give up this place.

Kissinger fashioned on the rather brilliant idea of keeping the Israelis at the western end of these cliffs that oversaw this big staging ground for battles and put the Egyptians at a new base on the eastern end right near the Gidi Pass, right between the Gidi and the Mitla Passes. The Egyptians would therefore have to cross the Israeli lines in order to get to their camp and the Israelis would have to cross the Egyptian lines — theoretically at least — to get to their camp.

In the middle would be the Americans. We were there to monitor the passage of troops, weapons, and vehicles from one army to their camp in the Sinai and back. So, our job as monitors (there were about 30 government personnel, of whom about 20 of us were liaison officers)…was to monitor the number of personnel, weapons, and vehicles that were going into the Israeli camp on the one end or the Egyptian camp on the other end. We had a little cabin outside of each camp and we stayed there with an Israeli or an Egyptian counterpart….

What we did was, we would stand at the gate and count the number of vehicles and the number of vehicles that were in the camp, count the number of personnel, asked to see any weapons that were hidden. We had a right of peremptory refusal on any of these convoys at any given time….

We also were in a zone that was patrolled by the UN… The UN truce zone had Finnish, Ghanaian, Indonesian, Polish, and Swedish soldiers. The Swedes and the Poles were working on logistics. Poland at that point was a communist country. The Finnish, Ghanaian, and Indonesian battalions were manning posts above the Gidi Pass, above the Mitla Pass, entry to the zone, and all that.

It was totally bizarre to see these Indonesians who had never been in an area where it didn’t rain an hour or two a day…finding themselves in, of all places, the absolute antithesis to their whole world, the Sinai desert. It was funny to see their reaction. They just didn’t know what to make of it. There were little anomalies like that all over the place.

“The Egyptians since the Pyramids haven’t done anything in less than 20 years”

The camp itself was maintained by a contract with a company called E Systems from Dallas, Texas, which had a reputation for putting state-of-the-art electronics on airplanes or anywhere. They were able to set up a monitoring system so we could tell at our little posts whether or not a movement that was detected was that of a camel or the Bedouin or the jeep or the rabbit. These were very sophisticated measuring devices. I noticed when I got to the White House later on that the Secret Service has a very similar system for monitoring whether any motion of the squirrels or tourists on the White House grounds were terrorists. We had 130 contractors from E Systems, almost all of whom were from the vicinity of Greenville, Texas, which made for a very interesting life there.

The Egyptians and the Israelis had agreed to this camp being set up in the middle of the Sinai desert and the Americans had said that we wanted to set it up within a timeframe of 90 days. The Egyptians and the Israelis were used to a different timeframe in terms of construction. The Egyptians since the Pyramids haven’t done anything in less than 20 years. The Egyptians and the Israelis were amused that the Americans would make this proposal. But we insisted on it.

It turns out that the State Department knew of a Holiday Inn that was supposed to have been built in the vicinity of El Paso, Texas, which was a prefab construction. It was to have been built, but for some odd reason, it wasn’t built in the desert near El Paso, so all that the State Department needed to do was load these things on flatbed trucks, set up some sort of water system and electricity system and, bingo, there we were. So, off the ships in the Sinai and the trucks which took these modular units and put the Holiday Inn right in the middle of the Sinai desert. …It was totally bizarre. We created…a big fantasy world.…

One day, the commander of the Finnish battalion came over and said, “Well, gentlemen, it’s been very interesting having dinner. I will take my sauna and go to sleep.”

Our commander said, “Well, you can go to sleep if you wish, but you may not take your

sauna because we don’t have one.”

“Oh,” said the Finnish commander. The next day, Finnish soldiers showed up and built a very large sauna, which became a coed sauna, which led to all sorts of interesting developments.

We had about 10% women in this group of 150. It was extremely important because experience has shown that all male groups and all female groups are more apt to be contentious with all sorts of petty power struggles than with some mixture of men and women…[I]t doesn’t even matter who the women are or what they’re like. It’s just having the women there that raises the politeness level among men and perhaps vice versa…

The contractors had a very odd schedule which resembled more the way on oil rig contract operates. You worked in a two-week period. In the two-week period, you had a four-day weekend and 10 days of work. Now, if you agreed to pool several two-week periods, you could have two weeks off every two months. The contractor gave these people free tickets anywhere in the world plus vacation pay with the suggestion that they not go to the United States because they’ve already got 30 days paid leave in the United States and according to American tax law, if you spend more than 30 days in the United States, you have to pay American taxes.

These people all made very good salaries. Besides the trip benefits every two weeks and going off to Thailand to get massage or off to Germany to ski or to the Greek islands to do some boating, they also received a very unusual arrangement whereby for the first six months of their year and a half contact, they would receive a bonus for re-upping or for being around, in the second six months, another bonus, and for the third six months, a final bonus for completing their contract and a bonus if they would re-up for another contract. Also, for every dollar that they saved in a special account, the company would match them a dollar. This was an encouragement to save money and had a very good psychological benefit. Furthermore, all of their housing and all of their food was provided.

All of our food and all of our housing was provided, but we didn’t get anything like the benefits that they got. The 20 or so people who were with the government were Foreign Service officers and some USIA [U.S. Information Agency] people and USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] people. We had, besides the liaison duty in the desert, one week of desk duty in either Tel Aviv or in Cairo. We could mix or match and we could switch off Cairo for Tel Aviv if that’s what we wanted. I preferred Tel Aviv greatly myself, even though I wanted to be an Egyptologist as a child. You get the idea of the Pyramids fairly quickly and you also get the idea of the Egyptian Museum fairly quickly. There are only so many visits one can make to the King Tut collection before it gets a little bit boring, even though there are 5,000 objects there and a lot of other things of interest….

We were housed within Cairo at the Mina House in Giza, which is right next to the main pyramid. It’s in an oasis next to the main pyramid. It was fun to stay there, but it was sort of bizarre. On the internal TV system that the Mina House had, they only played two films:  One was “Bonnie and Clyde” and the other one was “Return of the Pink Panther.” They rotated these two films permanently…I got to like “Return of the Pink Panther” very much. I got to detest “Bonnie and Clyde” quite heartily. 

Ray Hunt… was the Director General of the Sinai Field Mission… and later on was headquartered in Rome when they moved location after the Camp David Agreements…Poor Ray, the [Italian terrorist organization] Red Brigade at that time was running around killing people. One day when he was being driven through Rome in his official car with bulletproof glass, some Red Brigade terrorists began shooting a machine-gun at his car. The bullet that killed him wound up going through the rubber separation between the window and the door. Had that bullet not gone through, he would have been alive…Then this Red Brigade group announced that they had killed a NATO general. Well, he wasn’t a general. His title was “Director General.” He was a civilian… The whole thing was just stupid…

The Egyptians really didn’t want to fight the Israelis again. They had fought them in 1948, in 1967, in 1973, and they were quite tired of it…They had been beaten every time and they were just tired of it. Half the population of the Arab world is in Egypt and the Arab world was depending on Egypt to provide the manpower to fight against Israel…

When we were in the Gidi and Mitla Passes, every time we entered there, we saw dozens of Egyptian tanks, dozens of Egyptian busses and jeeps riddled with aircraft bullets and with rockets. They were just like sieves. I have a photograph of myself sitting in one jeep which looks very much like a colander. Right next to it was an Israeli sign saying “Drive safely…”

All of the vehicles that were destroyed in the ‘67 War and then the ‘73 War were Egyptian vehicles, all of them. They were all, each and every one of them, going westward… They were fleeing. The Israeli command of the skies was lethal for the Egyptians. Two of the great tank battles of history occurred in the Gidi and the Mitla Passes and you saw the litter of it all over the place. Part of the problem that the Egyptians had was that their materiel was taken from the Soviets.

The Soviets gave them tanks, jeeps, and trucks. The jeeps and trucks worked with an odd anomaly… In order to prevent their vehicles from freezing and their engine blocks from freezing, the Soviets had built little kerosene lamps inside each engine block. I asked the Egyptians every so often when I opened up one of their engine trunks to look for weapons — and I was really looking for this little kerosene heater — and I said, “What do you suppose this is for?”

The Egyptians would smile and say, “Oh, this is for making tea.” They would put on the kerosene lamps and they would put their teapots on it.

But the problem with the Soviet ordinance really was that the tanks were built for the planes of Central Europe and Eastern Europe. They were very flat, low slung, and they felt that this was a better way for avoiding detection by NATO tanks. The NATO tanks were very high, which is much better when you’re behind a sand dune or a hill because you can shoot over the sand dune or the hill whereas the Egyptian tanks… had to go up on top of the hill in order to aim their guns. This put them in a far more vulnerable position.

An Egyptian POW, hospitable Israelis, and the surrender of a platoon

The Egyptians had definitely lost the will to fight. When I was with the Israeli army one night before the Camp David Accords were announced, we fully expected that the Camp David talks would fail. I was talking with the soldiers who were my guards theoretically, about 15-20 of them, and the Israelis were reminiscing about their other fights with the Egyptians.

You have to know that the Israeli Defense Force has a practice of never changing a soldier’s unit… It’s like the British regimental system. There is a tremendous amount of regimental camaraderie  and pride that develops in this system. Because the Israeli adult males and unmarried females are required to have military service up to age 50, you always had these people showing up in their unit for a month of duty who had been in that unit 20-30 years before as a young soldier… Everybody was telling stories, the younger soldiers sitting back and listening as the older reservists were telling what they knew….

I had made some kosher Chinese food, my specialty when I was with the Israelis…and I asked them what they thought about the prospect of war with Egypt. They were very sad about it because they really liked the Egyptians. One of the soldiers told about what had happened in the previous war, in the ‘73 War. He said, “They had a platoon which captured an Egyptian emplacement and basically they killed everybody except for one captain and his batman.” Egyptian officers all have butlers or valets, which they call a “batman…”

The Israeli commander of that platoon said, “Look, we could just shoot you here and you could join your companions who are dead or we can send you back to the place where we’re keeping prisoners. Because there are two of you, I would need four of my soldiers and we don’t have that many to spare. So the third alternative is for you to come with us and don’t make any trouble.”

“Oh, no, no trouble at all,” said the Egyptian. So, they are moving forward against the Egyptian lines and this Egyptian captain and his batman are following. The Egyptian captain is so happy to be alive that he insists that the batman do the washing and the cooking for all of the soldiers in this unit of about 12. The Israelis at first are wary about this. There are some sort of Geneva protocols which perhaps prevent POWs from darning their socks and cooking their kosher food, but they thought, “Well, who’s to know?”

So this went on for a couple of days and the Egyptian captain, when they came upon one emplacement, said, “You know, I know the people who are commanders of this emplacement. If they knew how decent the Israelis are to prisoners, I’m sure that they would surrender without a fight. I can go over there under a white flag and talk with them.”

The Israelis were a bit wary of this. Who knows, he could have double crossed them. But they figured, well, we keep the batman and let the captain go and if he double crosses us we shoot him but we keep the batman because he is really good at cleaning underwear. So, they watched the guy go over to the Egyptian side. He was wearing an Egyptian uniform, so he is not shot at.

You hear a lot of commotion on the other side and then you see dozens of white flags go up. They’re putting their underwear up as a white flag. The Israelis insist that they throw their weapons down and they advance. They do that.

The Egyptian commander is just laughing and saying, “This is the least I could do for you. You were so hospitable to me. You were so wonderful. This is the very least I could do to repay your hospitality.”

He said that’s what fighting the Egyptians is like. They really didn’t want to fight the Egyptians. They were just too nice.

The Difference between Egyptians and Israelis:  “When Israelis see a sign that says ‘Wet Paint,’ they have to touch”

Q: I’ve talked to some people who have been involved in this and were saying that there are almost caricatures, that the Egyptians were sort of the “Inshallah, something will happen.” They weren’t very efficient. But the Israelis were always challenging, trying to push weapons in and all. There was no great particular reason except it was just trying to see what they could get away with. 

SVEDA: Absolutely. There was one time we had an Israeli commander there and we had to make a representation at the end of this report that we had for a given period which said that we had found 80 Israeli violations of the truce in this period and only two Egyptian violations and we were absolutely convinced that the Egyptians had just misunderstood what the instructions were. Most of these were airplane violations of the space, but there were also other violations in taking weapons.

The Israeli commander just smiled. He was a general. He said, “There are two kinds of people in the world. There is one kind of person who, when they see a park bench that is labeled ‘Wet Paint,’ they respect it. Occasionally, by accident, they may sit on it and get themselves covered with paint. Those are the Egyptians. There are others who, when they see a sign that says ‘Wet Paint,’ have to touch. That’s the Israelis. We have to touch because you’re telling us that you’re monitoring the truce and we have to see that you are monitoring the truce because we’re a country which is the size of your state of New Jersey and only half as much population. We don’t have the time to wait. We don’t have the time to trust you. By the way, you missed a lot of violations.”

We had entirely low expectations [for the Camp David Accords]….The story that I heard was that after 10 or more days of negotiations, Jimmy Carter spent perhaps 15 minutes alone with [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat and most of the rest of the time with Menachem Begin trying to convince him to give up territory for peace. The breaking point of opportunity came when Menachem Begin asked Jimmy Carter if Jimmy Carter could autograph some pictures of himself for Menachem Begin’s grandchildren.

Jimmy Carter spent a lot of time picking out the right photographs with Menachem Begin present and getting the right kind of pen because not all kinds of pens write on photographs and getting the names of the children and asking questions about the children and asking questions about their parents and asking Menachem Begin what kind of a world did he want his grandchildren to grow up in? He basically wore him down with that. We had very low expectations. Myself personally, I think that the Israelis could have — perhaps should have — given up less of the Sinai than they did… But the Israelis chose to do this and it was a very big gamble. I think it paid off because the Egyptians under no circumstances were joining in a war against Israel at this point…

Q: Were you picking up any feelings from either side about Sadat?

SVEDA: The Egyptians, of course, were practically worshiping Sadat. There were pictures of Sadat all over the place and they regarded him with great…and justifiable pride as a great leader with a very big heart. They were willing to follow him, whatever he did. The Israelis had remarkable trust in Sadat. I cannot recall ever hearing a word against Sadat from anybody. Believe me, I had contact with soldiers of all backgrounds, all degrees of orthodoxy or secularism or adherence to one party or another…[Read about Sadat’s assassination]

No matter where you go, you can’t escape Greenville, Texas

Q: Beyond the Egyptians and the Israelis, how did you deal with the Texans?

SVEDA: This was very funny. One day when I was in Cairo, I had to go to the airport to fetch one of our new U.S. government personnel. I noticed without much trouble that he was from Texas because he had this very distinctive style of speech that they have around Greenville, Texas. I asked him if per chance he was from Texas and he said, “Yes.” He said, “How did you know that?” I said, “I’m pretty good at hearing a Texas accent.”

I began to talk with him as we came in from the airport about his life. He told me how much he had hated Greenville, Texas, and how he just couldn’t wait to get away and

he joined the Foreign Service as a communicator just to get away from Greenville, Texas.

I said, “Oh, where have you been recently?” He was in Finland. He had gotten married. His wife would be living in Israel when he was in the Sinai. Fine.

The next day, we went to our camp in the Sinai. I watched his eyes as we got to the camp because the gate guard was from Greenville. He said, “My god, I think I know that person.”

I said, “Really?”

He said, “Yes, I went to high school with him I didn’t know that you had people from Greenville here.”

I said, “Yes, we do.” We got to the camp where we had this big cafeteria and his whole life began showing before his eyes. He saw men who had dated his sister. He saw people who he hated in football in that particular town. Later on that night at the little bar that we had, he said to me, “Why didn’t you tell me about this? Why didn’t you tell me?”

I said, “Simply because I knew you’d never come.”

I must say that the Texans were really a lot of fun to be with. I like to tell people that the atmosphere at the Egyptian base was like Lawrence of Arabia. A very British army, disciplined. You could hear the music of “Lawrence of Arabia” playing in the background. The Israeli camp was a bit like a mix between “Star Wars” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” If you can imagine “Star Wars” with the cast of “Fiddler on the Roof,” it would have been probably very accurate.

The camp that we had was basically like reruns of “Hee Haw,” which was a kind of a musical comedy vaudeville show of the 1970s which was very popular, something like “Nashville Grand Ole Opry” except that there was a little bit more of a Texas flavor to it…The Texans were always very polite. We had fights occasionally — not me, but they. They were very polite folks.

We were always meant to feel that we were intruders. They were always saying “Good enough for government work” and other things to bug us, but we were just smiling blandly in all directions in the typical Foreign Service way.

One of the mottos of the Foreign Service is “Where there are no alternatives, there are no problems.” So, if your embassy is burning around you, there is really nothing to do but smile blandly. You can’t do anything else. We were very pleasant. I don’t think there were any real conflicts between ourselves and the others. They were earning so much more money than we were. One third of them were on leave at any given time. Their leaves were to exotic locations. So, they realized that we were there and they couldn’t understand why we were there because we weren’t being paid anything near what they were being paid. We got along very well.

There was a man named Frederick Wiseman, who made a film called “Sinai Field Mission.” Wiseman is one of those directors who just does anthropological films. He just starts the cameras and…Every so often at the American Film Institute, they have this film. I saw it once. As luck would have it, it was filmed the month before I arrived, so I know all the people who were in the film but I’m not there. (Below, scene from the movie.)

It is a truly surreal experience for me. It’s also a lousy film.