The Ayalon Institute: The Secret Facility Hidden Under a Kibbutz Laundry

Deep underground, beneath a kibbutz laundry and bakery, an enormous, clandestine factory was operated by the Haganah: an ammunition factory that worked for three years, almost without stop. This is the story of the Ayalon Institute, whose work ensured the existence of the State of Israel.

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Photo from the booklet "The Ayalon Institute – Givat HaKibbutzim, Rehovot", published by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel

Hidden under an innocent-looking laundry and bakery, in what appeared to be a normal kibbutz in central Israel, lay a great secret. If the wrong person were to ever discover this secret, it could have greatly endangered the fate of the Jewish State.

Every morning at seven o’clock, forty-five young men and women quickly made their way to the laundry, endangering their lives for the state which was soon to be born. They disappeared into the building until the afternoon hours. In fact, they descended deep underground, to where a clandestine Haganah weapons factory had been established, as part of the secret project known as “The Ayalon Institute.”

This is no tall tale – within the unassuming laundry building was a secret opening which led to the hidden underground factory. It was here that weapons were produced for fighting against both the British Mandatory government and Arab terrorists. Above ground, a seemingly ordinary kibbutz, established on Givat HaKibbutzim (“Kibbutz Hill”) near the town of Rehovot, was in fact a cover for the lively and industrious factory, built underground in 1945. Its existence was only revealed many years later after the State of Israel was already well-established. In its three years of existence, the Ayalon Institute produced some 2.25 million 9 mm bullets for a locally produced version of the British “Sten” submachine gun, all under the suspicious noses of the British Mandatory authorities themselves. The ammunition produced here would prove vital for the Israeli army during the first phase of the War of Independence.

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Map of the “kibbutz”. The factory was located underground, between the bakery (מאפייה) and the laundry (מכבסה) which are seen near the center of the map. From the booklet The Ayalon Institute – Givat HaKibbutzim, Rehovot, published by The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel

Four different groups worked at the factory. They included: members of Ta’as, the Haganah’s military industry, who managed the Institute and served as the technical professional staff in charge of production; members of the Hebrew Scouts Movement who sought to establish a fishing kibbutz one day; members of the Regavim settlement group from the Palmach fighting force, and a number of members from the Habonim or “builders” settlement group who later founded Kibbutz Kfar HaNassi in the Galilee.

The Haganah’s military industry had already been producing all sorts of weaponry, including the Sten gun, but the ammunition shortages remained a major bottleneck until the founding of the Ayalon Institute.

The factory was established at the initiative of Yosef Avidar with the aid of machinery smuggled from Poland by Yehudah Arazi. The project was headed by Pesach Ayalon. They understood that the only way to operate a factory of this scale and not draw suspicious eyes was to bury it underground.

They searched for a location not far from Tel Aviv, and “Kibbutz Hill” fit the bill perfectly. Its location was isolated but not too out of the way, it was possible to dig out the necessary area, and the cover story worked. Settlement groups who would go on to found communities across the country were trained in the above-ground compound, providing a suitable pool of young men and women for the factory beneath it.

To conceal the noise generated by the factory, the laundry needed to run constantly, but the locals did not generate enough dirty laundry to justify that. To make sure the cover remained airtight, additional laundry was sent from people in Rehovot and from the maternity hospital. In order to ensure the residents did not come to the hill to get their clothing, a delivery service was put in place, just like a modern laundromat, which sent the clothing to a pick-up spot in Rehovot itself. The local carpentry shop and vegetable garden also served to conceal what was taking place below ground.

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From the booklet The Ayalon Institute – Givat HaKibbutzim, Rehovot, published by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel

The workers thus lived a double life, always risking discovery. With resourcefulness and creativity, they dealt with all sorts of problems and malfunctions. From the start, working with gunpowder underground was fraught with risk. There were also fears that went beyond the danger of a sudden explosion. Yehudit Ayalon, one of the local workers, said – “we had children, which refuted the rumor that working with lead and casting it could cause impotence for the guys.”

Working conditions were not simple. The men and women spent all day underground, with no sunlight or fresh air, and this affected their health. They increasingly suffered headaches, eye problems, and general weakness, until the Institute director appealed to the Haganah’s chief doctor, Dr. Yosef Kot, who toured the factory personally. The doctor came back with a recommendation: The workers must be exposed to a quartz or halogen lamp for a few minutes each day. Thus, even in the middle of winter, workers at the Ayalon Institute looked as tanned as if they’d come “from the (French) Riviera”. The Haganah doctor also told the workers to drink extra quantities of milk, swallow fish oil for the vitamins, and allocated a single whole egg for breakfast! This was a time of food shortages – others had to make do with half an egg.

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From the booklet The Ayalon Institute – Givat HaKibbutzim, Rehovot, published by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel

The fact that the other entrance to the secret Institute was in the local bakery was also a source of health concerns. The bread could only be cooked at night or when people weren’t working below, as the oven smoke would enter the factory with the hot air via the chimney. Yosef Blit, a Palmach member who was among the local workers, recalled “one night I was working at the bakery. I turned on the oven at a high heat and turned to prepare dough for bread. While focused on work, two guys I didn’t know at all burst into the bakery and yelled at me ‘Are you nuts? You could have killed us. We almost suffocated down there!’ And indeed, it turned out that these two were from the Haganah, and had come to calibrate guns in the shooting room, but they forgot to tell me about it.”

There were also people who lived on the site and walked around above ground but knew nothing about the Institute below it. Those who were in on the secret referred to these people as “giraffes”. One day, one such “giraffe” named Sara’leh sought to wash some clothes at the laundry, which was empty because the Institute workers were about to leave through the laundry building for lunch: “Sara’leh ‘the giraffe’ put her laundry in the concrete sink, added soap and opened the faucet … at that moment they pressed the electric button hidden behind the bakery. With a great amount of noise, the washing machine was lifted into the air before Sara’leh’s stunned face, turned on its hinge and a hole opened in the floor which people began to climb out of … She burst out shouting ‘People are coming out of the ground! People are coming out of the ground!’, and slipped and fell. Esther, who was responsible for the laundry that day, heard her, ran inside, and poured a bucket of water on her pale face to help her recover, but it was soap water…” The next day, poor Sara’leh was brought in to work at the factory, thus preventing other ‘giraffes’ from learning the secret.

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From the booklet The Ayalon Institute – Givat HaKibbutzim, Rehovot, published by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel

But what about relatives or guests coming to visit? The locals found a clever solution to this problem: “Every day, the gate to our kibbutz would have all sorts of notices: ‘foot and mouth disease,’ ‘bird plague,’ ‘infant illness,’ ‘quarantine,’ etc. – all to keep people away from the place,” recalled Yehudit Ayalon. Rumors of this extremely unlucky place must certainly have spread.

By the end of June 1948, there was no longer any immediate threat to central Israel, and the British had already departed. There was now no longer any need for an underground weapons factory. After three years of hard work, the weapons-making machines were moved from the Institute to other locations. Some of the workers who had settled in the area left in September 1949 to establish a new kibbutz -Maagan Michael – located between the Carmel mountain range and the sea.

They were replaced on Givat HaKibbutzim by the IDF’s Science Corps, which maintained the secrecy of the location. The place later changed hands several times, with the secret of the Ayalon Institute being kept under wraps for decades after the project came to an end.

Only in 1975, thirty years after it was founded, was the Institute’s amazing story made public. The coordinator of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel in Rehovot sought to prepare a tour which would ensure the preservation of sites around the city. When gathering material for this purpose, she discovered the site’s great secret.

On October 29, 1987, the former underground factory was officially designated a national preservation site.

This article is based on the booklet The Ayalon Institute – Givat HaKibbutzim, Rehovot [Hebrew], published by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel. Liron Halbriech and Amit Naor took part in the preparation of this article.

The Final Days of the Jewish Community in Gaza

Documents recently discovered in the Archives Department of the National Library of Israel shed new light on the forgotten Hebrew community of Gaza, as well as the Jews who lived in and visited the city even after the community no longer officially existed

The Gaza beach, 1924. This photograph is part of the Archive Network Israel project and is made available as part of a collaboration between the Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Institute, the Israeli Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

The third decade of the 20th century was the last decade of existence for the old Jewish community of Gaza.

By this point the community had dwindled down to only a handful of people, but in the past, it had included prominent figures such as Nathan of Gaza, a well-known follower of Sabbatai Zevi, and Rabbi Israel Najara, author of the liturgical poem Ya Ribon Olam,

In a letter from 1926, discovered in the archive of Moshe David Gaon, a scholar of Eastern Jewry and author of the monumental work Yehudei HaMizrach Be’Eretz Yisrael (“Jews of the East in the Land of Israel”), which is kept at the National Library, Mr. Dromi, secretary of the Hebrew community council in Gaza, provided Gaon with details on the state of the community. Dromi noted that it had its own elected council, and numbered 51 people, Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike, in contrast to the period before the war, when there were close to a hundred Jews in Gaza.

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From the Moshe David Gaon Archive, which is in the process of being cataloged and is made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington

During the 1929 riots, the Jews of Gaza were forced to flee the city, and that was the official end of the community, but does that mean that there was no longer a Jewish presence in Gaza?

The Gaza community has seen ups and downs over the years, and during the first half of the 19th century it ceased to exist, apparently due to the invasion of Muhammad Ali, the de facto ruler of Egypt at the time. During the second half of the 19th century, the city’s Jewish community was renewed at the initiative of Klonymus Ze’ev Wissotzky, founder of the Wissotzky Tea Company, and Hacham Nissim Elkayam, a Torah scholar and merchant born in Morocco. The Jews of the city were mainly Sephardim who were familiar with the Arabic language and culture.

They came from various places, mainly from Jaffa, but also from Aleppo, Hebron and even from Europe. The majority of them worked in trade, especially of barley and colocynth, a bitter fruit with medicinal properties that grows around Gaza and is also known as “vine of Sodom” or “wild gourd”. Due to their extensive trade relations with the local Bedouin tribes, some of the city’s Jews lived for several months of the year near the tribes, outside the city, and even adopted some of their habits. For example, Jewish men used to ride horses and wear a sash with a dagger and a gun. The Jews of Gaza were also involved in banking, and a branch of the Anglo-Palestine Bank opened in the city. In his memoir, the bank’s manager, Abraham Elmaliah, describes how the bank’s management traveled by train from Jaffa to Gaza to be there on the day it opened, and along the way they were greeted with songs and blessings by farmers from the Jewish colonies (moshavot) as well as the Jews of Gaza themselves. The bank was highly respected in the city, its manager Elmaliah was always accompanied by two Kavass guards, a symbol of honored status.

Due to its isolation from other communities, the Gaza community was generally a cohesive and unified collective. Former community members recalled different families celebrating Sukkot and Passover together. Typically, several Jewish families would share a single living compound, with each compound having a dedicated room intended to accommodate Jews who were spending the night in the city, on their way from Cairo to the Land of Israel.

The Moshe David Gaon Archive includes evidence of the solidarity felt among members of the community. Among other things, the archive includes letters from the heads of the community to the Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Franco, the Rishon LeZion, with requests to support the members of the community in preparation for the Passover holiday.

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A letter from the Jewish community in Gaza to Chief Rabbi Franco, 1912. From the Moshe David Gaon Archive, which is in the process of being cataloged thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington

Jewish religious life was also quite developed in the city. There was a rabbi who also served as a teacher, kosher slaughterhouses, a ritual bath, and a Jewish cemetery. Although it wasn’t a large community, it had three synagogues, one for each extended family. At the initiative of one of the dignitaries of the community, Nissim Elkayam, who was influenced by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a Hebrew school was established in Gaza at the beginning of the 20th century. Two teachers sent from Jerusalem taught there. Rabbi Nissim Ohana served as the rabbi of the community for part of the time. He later served as a rabbi in New York, Egypt, Malta and Haifa. During his stay in Gaza, Rabbi Ohana wrote a book, in collaboration with the Mufti (Muslim Leader) of Gaza, Sheikh Abdullah al-Alami, entitled Know What You Will Answer Epicurus: Clear Answers from the Bible Itself. The purpose of the book was to provide Jews and Muslims with replies that could be used to counter the efforts of Christian missionaries, who ran a hospital in the city at the time.

World War I was a severe setback for the Jewish community of Gaza. Most of the city’s Jews had foreign citizenship and were therefore expelled from the country by the Ottoman government. While a number of families had local citizenship and could remain in the city, they were required to enlist in the Ottoman army or, alternatively, pay a high ransom. As a result, the Jewish community effectively ceased to exist for several years, until after the war. Once the fighting was over and the land had been conquered by the British Army (which established a military cemetery in the city with several Jewish graves), the Jews slowly began to return to Gaza, but the Arab nationalist awakening damaged the close neighborly relations that had existed in the past between Jews and Arabs. Among other things, many Arabs refused to rent houses to Jews, and since part of Gaza was destroyed during the war, Jews had difficulty finding homes in the city. The Jewish community also suffered a lack of support from the national institutions, which no longer saw any value in Jews living in the heart of Arab cities, preferring instead to focus on developing new agricultural communities.

In late Summer of 1929, things reached a boiling point. As part of the Arab riots that were now raging throughout the country, there was an attempt to attack members of the Jewish community in Gaza as well. According to press reports at the time, local Jews barricaded themselves in the Jewish hotel near the police building. An Arab mob that attacked them had to retreat after one of the Jews fired a gun and others poured sulfuric acid on one of the Arab intruders (see, for example, an article in Haaretz dated September 1, 1929 and the recollections of Gaza resident Sara Yaffe as quoted in Ma’ariv dated December 9, 1956). With the help of some distinguished Arabs locals who were on friendly terms with the community, along with the British police, the Jews managed to board trucks that took them to the Gaza train station, where they had to wait for the train from Alexandria to Lod, all while the angry mob was still trying to get at them. This was the end of the Jewish community in Gaza.

Although the community in Gaza ceased to exist after the 1929 riots, there were many Jews for whom Gaza was never forgotten. Jewish tourist groups, including some led by geographer Joseph Braslavi, and the “Association of Wanderers in the Land of Israel”, continued to visit the city. In 1934, the Association, of which Moshe David Gaon was a member, published an ad for a trip to the southern part of the country to include Beer Sheva, Ashkelon, and Gaza. Participants were asked to bring food for a day and a half, a jug of water, a Bible, and a map of the area. Among other things, the trip included a visit to the ancient mosque of Gaza, which had a pillar inside with a seven-branched menorah engraved on it.

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From the Moshe David Gaon Archive, which is in the process of being cataloged and is made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington

Documents found in the archives of the entrepreneur Shmuel Zvi Holtzman, which is also kept at the National Library, show that even after the dissolution of the community in Gaza, Jews still lived in the city and dreamed of re-establishing their community. In a letter from 1933, a Jewish agronomist and resident of Gaza named Eliyahu Kapsuto, who was appointed by the Gaza municipality to oversee vegetation in the city, appealed to Holtzman asking him to send grass seeds.

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From the Archive of Shmuel Zvi Holtzman

Holtzman himself had planned to renew Jewish settlement in Gaza. In a draft memorandum that was found in his personal archives, there’s a detailed plan to establish a stock-holding company, “The Land of Israel Company for Planting and Building, Ltd.”, whose purpose was to establish a Jewish farming colony (moshava) near Gaza. The plan was never realized, and we don’t have any further details about it. It is possible that Holtzman abandoned his plan so that he could focus on establishing the Gush Etzion cluster of settlements, which he founded at that time.

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From the Archive of Shmuel Zvi Holtzman

The Moshe David Gaon Archive is in the process of being cataloged and is made accessible at the National Library of Israel, thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel. Arik Kitsis is the archivist in charge of handling the Moshe David Gaon archive.

In the Very Heart of Gaza: Soldiers Sing a Prayer for the Hostages’ Release

A prayer dedicated to “our brethren… who remain in distress and captivity”, has accompanied the Jewish nation since the ninth century. It was sung during WWI, at Hasidic music festivals, and just recently at a spontaneous gathering of soldiers in a darkened house in Gaza, after they had lost two of their beloved commanders

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By Daniel Lipson

“Our brethren, the entire House of Israel who remain in distress and captivity, whether on sea or on land, may God have compassion on them, and bring them from distress to relief, from darkness to light, from servitude to redemption, at this moment, speedily, very soon; and let us say Amen”

The fighting in Jebaliya was difficult that week. On Thursday, December 26, 2023, the Nahal Brigade’s 931st Battalion lost its beloved company commander, Major Shai Shimriz, as well as his good friend Captain Shauli Greenglick. Other soldiers were wounded.

Four days later, at the end of yet another exhausting day of action against Hamas terrorists, soldiers of the rifle company’s 2nd platoon gathered in one of the houses in the neighborhood.

The soldiers, students of the Shirat Moshe hesder yeshiva and the Hakotel yeshivah in the Old City of Jerusalem, took out what snacks and candy they had left and sat in the dark (electricity is cut off in most of the Gaza Strip) for an improvised Melaveh Malkah – the meal traditionally eaten after the conclusion of Shabbat

In the dark, cramped house, they shared Torah lessons and sang as they always had, in better times back in their yeshivahs. One of the songs, which has become particularly relevant and moving in recent times, was Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael (“Our Brethren, the entire House of Israel”) – a prayer for the release of the captives and the hostages.

Hashta Ba’agala Ubizman Kariv – Venomar Amen

The tune for the song was composed by Abie Rothenberg, one of the great Hasidic composers of the twentieth century, at some point in the late eighties. The song, which Rothenberg originally sung himself, was produced as part of a tape entitled Lev VeNefesh (“Heart and Soul”) in 1990. On his 1997 album, Bitchu Be-Hashem (“Trust in God”), singer Dedi Graucher released a new version of the song. Graucher passed away last September.

The song has since become an incredibly popular hit and has been reworked in many different ways, one of the most recent and most listened to being Lior Narkis’ version from October 2023.

The prayer itself is recited in Ashkenazi communities immediately after the Torah reading on Mondays and Thursdays. First the four Yehi ratzon (“May it be His will”) requests are said, followed by Acheinu. Members of Sephardi Jewish communities recite the Yehi ratzon requests as part of the Shabbat blessing of the new month when it falls in that coming week, but without the added Acheinu segment,

The Acheinu prayer originated in the siddur of Rav Amram Gaon. In the ninth century CE, and at the request of the Jewish community of Spain, Rav Amram Gaon of Babylon sent the order of prayers in an edited and organized form for the community’s use. In the siddur, Rav Amram Gaon addresses the saying of Yehi ratzon and Acheinu as part of the Torah reading on the Monday and Thursday of every week, and also on the first of the Hebrew month. The formula there differs slightly from our current version.

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The Acheinu prayer, Sephardic Jewish manuscript, 14-15th century, the British Library

In the Machzor Vitry, an important 12th century book on Jewish law and prayer customs, Acheinu appears in the afternoon Mincha prayer on Shabbat. Professor Aharon Kellerman noted in his article on the development of the custom that printed Ashkenazi siddurim first contained the Acheinu prayer in the Krakow edition of 1578. In 1646, it appeared in a siddur printed in Amsterdam.

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The Acheinu prayer in an Amsterdam siddur, an almost identical version to the one we are familiar with today

The first Sephardic siddur which printed the Yehi ratzon prayers was published in Istanbul in 1739 in the portion containing the prayer for Shabbat when it falls on the first of the month. In this siddur, like all Sephardi siddurs to this day, the Acheinu prayer does not appear.


When a Prayer Becomes Popular Music

For generations, Jews would often be taken captive, by pirates, brigands and others, and sometimes had to be ransomed for huge sums. Jewish communities worked hard to fulfill the commandment of redeeming captives and sometimes managed to return their brothers and sisters to their families. Yet in some cases, there was no trace of the captives and those who had abducted them, and all that remained was to pray for their well-being. The words of the Acheinu prayer have remained painfully relevant over the ages, while also containing a consoling message, and it is therefore only natural that they be turned into a song. One of the first musical compositions for the Acheinu prayer that we know of is a piece of chazannut (Jewish cantorial singing) by the famous Jewish cantor Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933). Two years after his arrival in the US from Europe, the First World War broke out. The war and the suffering of his Jewish brethren affected him and his art. In this period, he put Acheinu and other prayers to music, wishing to express the pain of the Jewish People. This song, along with his other songs, excited the masses who flocked to his concerts – first in New York, then throughout the United States and Europe.

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Advertisement in The Forward for Yossele Rosenblatt’s performance, March 7, 1929, where he sang Acheinu among other prayers

The prayer has since been put to music a few more times, as both pieces for cantors and general Hasidic songs. One of these versions was heard at the Ninth Hasidic Song Festival in 1977, performed by a young singer by the name of Riki Gal, who would later go on achieve fame as an Israeli pop star.

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On a personal note: Sitting amongst the shadows of that darkened house in Gaza was also my own son, a squad commander in the Nahal Brigade. He and his soldiers certainly thought of the relevance of the words, and the reasons why this song has become one of the symbols of the war, after the abduction of some 240 Israelis on October 7.

We all pray that “God have mercy on them,” and may we merit their returning home soon along with the soldiers who give their lives for the People of Israel – hashta ba’agala ibizman kariv (“speedily, very soon”).

Nahal: The Story of the Green Brigade

In the early days, Nahal soldiers served as both fearless fighters and hard-working farmers. They brought their determination and camaraderie from the battlefields to the wheat fields of Israel's kibbutzim and moshavim. The Nahal program is even responsible for some of the finest songs written in Hebrew! This is the story of the IDF's green brigade

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Nahal soldiers in Nahal Oz, 1950. Photo by Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

By Reut Gawiser

In the early 1940s, the Jewish community in the Land of Israel, the Yishuv, faced enormous tensions. Its members looked worryingly at the terrible events unfolding in Europe, with the Nazis conquering country after country, advancing in great strides towards the Middle East. Lebanon and Syria became active arenas for the collaborationist Vichy regime, while other countries in the region did not need much persuasion in joining up with the cause of wiping out the Jewish People. The Jews of Mandatory Palestine had only Britain to rely on, but the United Kingdom was already up to its neck in dealing with the European front and the Nazi attacks on the British Isles themselves. It was at this time that the Palmach was founded.

The Palmach, (the word is a Hebrew acronym meaning “strike companies”) was born out of a unification of a number of Jewish military organizations operating in the Land of Israel in those years, with the knowledge and approval of the British Mandatory government. The goal was to train Palmach fighters (including female fighters later on) to fight the Nazi enemy, if and when they tried to conquer the country.

Uzi Narkis (left) and his comrades in the Palmach’s Company A on a trek to Masada, 1944. Source: Uzi Narkis Collection. This item is part of the Archive Network Israel project, and is made accessible thanks to the collaboration of Yad Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The Palmach was never forced to put its original training to the test. German forces led by Field Marshall Erwin Romel were stopped by the British Army at El Alamein in Egypt in late 1942 and never reached the Land of Israel. The British thus concluded that there was no longer a need for the Palmach and sought to dismantle it. The Palmach in turn decided instead to go underground and even operate against the British authorities themselves, until the independent State of Israel was declared.

Upon going underground and with the establishment of the Jewish Brigade as part of the British Army, which attracted many Jewish soldiers into its ranks, the Palmach faced a manpower crisis. To overcome it, Labor Zionist leader Yitzhak Tabenkin conceived a novel solution, connecting the Palmach companies to kibbutzim throughout the country: the Palmachniks would work two weeks of every month on a kibbutz, receiving lodgings, food, and weapons in return from the kibbutzim. They would then spend the rest of the month training and taking part in various operations.

This arrangement worked very well, to the point that Palmach leaders thought up another idea – creating “training groups” or gar’inim, groups of young people who trained together while establishing new kibbutzim or helping to stabilize young ones. It was the perfect combination between the spirit of pioneering which beat in the heart of the founding generation and the clear and unavoidable need to protect the Jewish Yishuv. Among the kibbutzim established by these Palmach groups were Erez, Mashavei Sadeh, Yir’on, the aptly named Kibbutz Palmachim, and many more.

A Palmachnik in training working on a lathe at a framing workshop, Kibbutz Givat Chaim, 1942. Source: Yehoshua Levanon Collection. This item is part of the Archive Network Israel project, and is made accessible thanks to the collaboration of Yad Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Heritage and the National Library of Israel

During the War of Independence, the Palmach was an organized fighting force numbering over 2,000 battle-ready soldiers. In fact, the Palmach was the first organization to prepare a reserve force of veteran members, something that eventually evolved into the IDF reserves. Once the war was over and the underground disbanded, the Palmach’s fighters and commanders were integrated into the IDF’s chain of command, including such luminaries as Yitzhak Rabin, Uzi Narkis, Yigal Alon, and many others.

But what would become of the military-agricultural project that the Palmach oversaw, now that the organization was defunct and part of the regular state army? Due to the concerns of kibbutz and youth movement members, a letter was sent to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion asking him to ensure that young soldiers who were assigned to the training groups would maintain the mix of defending the country and working the land, lest the farms be abandoned and left to waste.

A few days later, Ben-Gurion responded: “I confirm the receipt of your letter from the day of 10.8.48 regarding the core settlement groups of the class of 1931,” Ben-Gurion wrote in his distinctive, direct style. “Your aim to preserve the core settlement groups… is fundamentally correct and the Defense Ministry will give military HQ instructions in this regard…”

Letter sent to heads of youth movements and kibbutzim hosting the training groups: “The core settlement groups should not be allowed to disintegrate.” Source: Ben Gurion Heritage Archive, Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel

And so it was. The pre-state Palmach training groups became the training groups of the “Nahal” – a Hebrew acronym standing for Noar Halutzi Lochem – “Pioneering Fighting Youth”. The Nahal program brought together the principles of settlement and defense, a combination which many consider to be the ideal of the native Israeli sabra – a brave fighter who also works the land.

The training period was now replaced with assignment to new Nahal military-agricultural outposts. Core groups of male and female soldiers would be tasked with setting up an outpost, or holding (היאחזות), in a particular location, usually in border areas or regions of strategic importance. The group’s members would lay down the civilian infrastructure and also serve as a military force defending the settlement until it became a kibbutz or moshav capable of absorbing civilian members.

The first Nahal military settlement was Nahal Oz, established opposite Gaza City in 1951, which became a kibbutz two years later. This kibbutz was one of the many communities that came under attack by Hamas on October 7, 2023.

These military-agricultural settlements became a symbol of the Nahal program over the decades, with hundreds of communities being founded in this manner across many different regions. They include kibbutzim within the “Green Line” as well as settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). The people who live in them today can represent opposite ends of the Israeli political spectrum, but for many years they all shared a similar ideology and vision.

Paratrooping Nahal Soldiers and the Heroic Story of Mitla Pass

Alongside its important work in settling the country, Nahal was a military unit for all intents and purposes, whose soldiers gave their all in every military conflict in Israeli history. In the 1950s, the Nahal Parachuted Battalion (whose soldiers came from either the moshavim and kibbutzim or from religious yeshivahs) was attached to the Paratroopers Brigade. For this reason, to this day Nahal soldiers are given the red boots usually associated with IDF paratroopers. Along with the soldiers of the Paratroopers Brigade, they took part in the reprisal raids carried out in response to “fedayeen” terrorist attacks.

In the Sinai Campaign of 1956, the 88th Nahal Battalion, attached to the paratroopers, took part in the Battle of Mitla Pass in Sinai, one of the most famous engagements in IDF history. When the force was dropped near the combat zone, it encountered Egyptian ambushes. The Egyptians used heavy artillery to target a few dozen IDF soldiers stuck in a narrow pass with no room to move their own heavy weapons. They waited for backup for over 24 hours, while doing their best to return fire.

Even today, the Battle of Mitla Pass represents the determination, fighting spirit, and sheer doggedness the IDF is known for. At the time, however, many believed the battle was unnecessary and too costly: 38 Paratroop and Nahal soldiers were killed, one went missing, and over a hundred were wounded.

After the battle, Ariel Sharon, then commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, said the following of the ordeal: “Twenty men in a death trap, crying for help and their commander rushes forward to extract them… There are deeds that are examined not only in the immediate context… but which leave their imprint on the character of the army and its moral superiority for years and future generations to come. Rescuing wounded on the battlefield is such a deed.”

Paratroop Brigade commander Ariel Sharon says farewell to his soldiers just before entering into the Mitla Pass during the Sinai Campaign of 1956. Source: Mordechai Bar-On Collection. This item is part of the Archive Network Israel project, and is made accessible thanks to the collaboration of Yad Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Nahal Goes Onstage

What do Arik Einstein, Yossi Banai, and Chaim Topol share with the band Kaveret, Yardenah Arazi, and even Dafna Dekel and Hani Nahmias (really, this list could go on forever)? The answer, of course, is the Nahal Troupe.

Even this achievement can be credited to Nahal’s pre-state forerunner – the Palmach, the first Jewish military organization to establish its own entertainment troupe known as the Cheezbatron or “campfire story ensemble”, whose members eventually became true stars of the Israeli cultural scene – including Shaike Ofir, Arik Lavi, and Naomi Polani. Nahal continued this legacy of song and merriment with its own musical troupe, which would give the young state many of its most beloved performing icons.

Members of the Cheezbatron perform in the Arava desert. Shaike Ophir (left) and Naomi Polani (second from right) included, May 1949. Photo by Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

It was the “Pop Idol” of its time, and many of its stars would become national cultural icons, influencing the Hebrew songbook to this very day. Many units in the IDF had similar troupes, but the Nahal troupe clearly stood above them all.

How?

This, too, can be attributed to the creativity and determination of the Nahal program. The best Israeli poets, composers, and songwriters worked with the troupe over the years, including Naomi Shemer of “Jerusalem of Gold” fame, as well as Chaim Heffer and Dubi Zeltzer.

The Nahal troupe enjoyed popularity and success for several decades, but over time, its significant cultural influence waned, as Israeli society evolved. The troupe closed down in 1993, and although it was reestablished a decade later, it couldn’t rekindle the spark it had lit among Israelis in its glory years.

Nahal Soldiers in Green

The Nahal Will Be Like Any Other Infantry Unit: Will Receive a Green BeretMaariv, June 1988

The 1980s brought a new front to Israel’s wars: Lebanon. After the war which led Prime Minister Menachem Begin to resign and say “I can’t go on any longer,” the IDF once again changed form and new units were established, with older ones undergoing changes. The Nahal battalions were united into a single brigade. In the late 1980s, the Nahal Brigade received the beret it is known for to this day – bright green, inspired by the unit’s agricultural history and connection with the land.

Nahal soldiers after receiving their beret. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

A Spearhead Brigade

Nahal soldiers in training. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

The soldiers of the Nahal Brigade were frequently placed in hotspots, manning IDF outposts in Lebanon and in Judea and Samaria. The brigade was divided into four battalions: the 931st, 932nd, 50th, and a reconnaissance battalion (Gadsar). In the 1990s, instead of establishing new communities, members of Nahal training groups frequently dedicated a period of their army service to helping educate and assist youth in urban and peripheral areas.

This was not the only innovation brought in by the brigade. Nahal was always characterized by innovative thinking, and this continued into the 1990s.

In 1999, Nahal established the Netzah Yehudah or Nahal Haredi Battalion, the first battalion of its kind, meant only for yeshivah students and Haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews). In this battalion, soldiers can maintain a Haredi lifestyle alongside meaningful military service in a combat unit. The battalion is now attached to the Kfir Brigade, but there is no doubt that the Nahal Brigade played an important role in the battalion’s history.

Another innovation to come out of the Nahal Brigade in the last few decades is the Caracal Battalion.

The caracal is a desert cat can leap to a height of nearly ten feet and will not hesitate to fight larger predators such as hyenas. It is silent and stealthy, but also determined and deadly. It’s therefore easy to understand why this was the name chosen when it was decided in the early 2000s to launch an experiment – a mixed male-female company within the Nahal Brigade. The experiment, as we know today, succeeded.

Additional caracal companies were formed shortly after, with recruits coming from the Nahal training groups. In 2004, the companies were merged into a battalion charged with guarding a sector stretching 80 miles, and the battalion itself was expanded significantly. The battalion’s number, 33, symbolizes the 33 female Palmach soldiers who fell in the War of Independence.

The formation of the battalion did not pass without criticism. Some questioned the capabilities of the female soldiers, who have constituted about 70% of the battalion’s personnel to this day. The following story is the ultimate response to the doubters: In 2014, Capt. Or Ben Yehudah, then a battalion officer, received an urgent call to go and check out a developing incident near the border fence. Three jeeps were charging towards the fence from the Egyptian side. When they reached it, the people in the vehicles emerged and began trying to climb over the fence, equipped with ladders and guns. Other vehicles waiting for the suspicious convoy were spotted on the Israeli side, and the initial assumption was this was a drug smuggling operation, which is typical in the region.

Most smugglers are quick to flee the moment they spot IDF soldiers approaching. But Capt. Ben Yehuda and the two soldiers who were with her, saw that this time was different. In fact, the suspicious figures opened fire on them! The “smugglers” turned out to be 23 Al-Qaeda terrorists armed with rifles and RPGs.

The soldiers fired back and waited for reinforcements. Aviv, one of the two accompanying soldiers, was shot and seriously wounded. Ben Yehuda extracted him under fire and was herself wounded while doing so. The battle lasted for a few more minutes until the terrorists were neutralized thanks to backup forces arriving on site.

Despite her injury, Ben Yehudah refused to evacuate until the incident was over. In recognition of her heroic conduct under fire, Or Ben Yehudah received a medal from the head of IDF Southern Command. Today, Ben Yehudah is a Lieutenant Colonel who serves as commander of the Caracal Battalion (which was recently placed under the Border Defense Corps but which still brings in young recruits from the Nahal Brigade). On October 7, she conducted a 14-hour firefight at Sufa outpost and a number of neighboring civilian communities, during which she and her forces neutralized dozens of Hamas terrorists, saving many lives. Her deputy, Maj. Avraham Hovelashvili, fell in these battles.

Since the days of the Palmach and the War of Independence, Nahal soldiers have proved fearless fighters as well as dedicated farmers who worked the land. Their contribution to the building and defense of this country could fill many more pages in the chronicles of the history of the state. Nahal soldiers brought their determination and camaraderie from the battlefields to the wheat fields of Israel’s kibbutzim and moshavim. Their contribution to shaping the landscapes of the country we love is incredibly significant and wide-ranging.

These days, when it seems nothing is as it was, there is a Hebrew song by Yoram Taharlev, whose words seem like a prayer for better days:

“The Nahal soldiers return, the Nahal soldiers return

To the orchard and the grove, to the coops and the vineyards

The Nahal soldiers return, the Nahal soldiers return

Like everyone

And life returns, and life returns

To its track.”

(Shir Hanahla’im – “The song of the Nahal Soldiers”, by Yoram Taharlev)