April 03, 1978 12:00 PM

It was Saturday afternoon. Major Gen. Avigdor “Danish” Ben-Gal, 42, was holding a routine staff meeting at headquarters of the northern Israel defense forces when he was interrupted by an urgent call from his wife. “Yanush,” she cried, “there is a massacre at the country club at the entrance to Tel Aviv! A colonel drove by and saw it and phoned you. He says there is a whole busload of terrorists!” Minutes later Ben-Gal’s helicopter swooped down at the bloody scene of the Palestinian terrorist slaughter, and the general himself took command.

That night Ben-Gal’s 10,000 troops began moving toward Lebanon. Though heavy rains delayed their attack (code-named “Stone of Wisdom”) on PLO guerrilla camps, Ben-Gal’s artillery rolled across the frontier 72 hours later. Ben-Gal commanded them from his war room inside Lebanon, sipping tea and munching cheese and tomato sandwiches. At 3 a.m. he would nap on a field cot, rising again at 6:30 for a quick shave, a perfunctory tooth-brushing with his forefinger and a shoeshine. “Chief of staff orders,” he joked. “Even a general has to report to battle with his shoes shining.”

On the second day of battle, Israeli Chief of Command Gen. Mordechai Gur arrived at forward headquarters for breakfast. “We have no time,” Ben-Gal told him. “We have to visit the combat units. You can get your coffee there.” Circling over the Arab village of Marge-Ayun, the general’s Bell 205 helicopter suddenly drew a flurry of gunfire. “Who is shooting at us?” asked the startled General Gur. “Sir,” replied Ben-Gal, “how do you expect me to know up here who shells whom and from where? Just give me the right order and my artillery will see to it that there will be no shelling from anywhere.”

Such brash coolness has earned Yanush Ben-Gal a reputation as one of the Israeli army’s most brilliant and unconventional commanders. “Yanush doesn’t give a damn about smiles or handshakes,” says a fellow officer, “but he has an uncanny knack of getting at the essentials.” In 1973 he was called “a madman” for predicting that war was imminent. But when the Arabs attacked two weeks later, his Seventh Brigade was the only Israeli unit in a state of full readiness. Its defeat of the invading Syrians is credited with saving Israel, and won Ben-Gal his general’s stars. Four years from now, when the position becomes vacant again, he is expected to be named commander-in-chief.

Born in Poland in 1936, Yanush was orphaned only three years later when Hitler’s armies invaded his homeland. Hand in hand, he and his 5-year-old sister liana set off on an incredible 5,000-mile odyssey across the expanse of Russia to neutral Tehran. Together they walked, hitchhiked and scrambled aboard trains, eventually arriving in Palestine three years later with a group of Jewish refugee children from Germany. After a year on a kibbutz, Yanush and liana hiked to Tel Aviv, where they were taken in by a distant cousin who raised them. Today Ben-Gal and his second wife, Galia, a schoolteacher, live in the ancient town of Caesarea, near Tel Aviv. They have six children—two by his previous marriage, one by Galia’s, and three of their own.

As a soldier, Ben-Gal got his first taste of fighting in 1956 during Israel’s first Sinai campaign. In the Six-Day War of 1967 he served as operations chief of a brigade that smashed Egypt’s Sinai fortifications, though he had lost half his right foot shortly before when his jeep struck a mine. By 1972 he had his own brigade. “I never intended to turn the army into a career,” he explains (he dreamed of being a doctor), “but I remained because I liked it. I loved the Negev, the desert, the fields. I loved speeding in jeeps. Later I got used to the army, and it became a part of me. And maybe also,” he adds with a mischievous shrug, “I was afraid to make a new start in life.”

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