Hidden Weapons, Explosives and Tunnels: The IDF’s Combat Engineers

No unit in the IDF can get very far without combat engineering personnel. However, these soldiers don't always get the credit they deserve for their critical contribution to Israel's defense. This is the story of the Combat Engineering Corps – the brave and careful soldiers charged with dismantling all types of obstacles that stand in the army's way.

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One of the developments of the IDF Combat Engineering Corps, the "Nochri", which can be attached to the front of any vehicle, with the purpose of detonating any mine and thus protecting the vehicle and those inside. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

In the early days of the State of Israel, Hillel El-Dag (originally Oldak) worked as an engineer for the Solel Boneh company in the construction of the Ramla bypass road, between Hulda and Masmiya in central Israel. One morning, when El-Dag arrived at the work site, he was surprised to find that his tractors had disappeared. Concerned at this turn of affairs, El-Dag rushed to neighboring Kibbutz Na’an, in the hope that someone there might know what happened to the expensive tractors. There, resting on the grass, he met a group of soldiers, including Givati ​​Brigade Deputy Commander Meir’ke Davidson. After El-Dag introduced himself and asked whether they knew what had happened to his tractors, the deputy commander turned to him with a question of his own:

“Are you an engineer?” he asked immediately.

“Yes,” I answered

“Very well, consider yourself enlisted. We need an engineer for Givati [the IDF brigade].”

(from the book History of the Engineering Corps [Hebrew])

Among the many things that the young, new army required upon its establishment, there was an urgent need for experienced and professional engineering personnel. Finding suitable people was no simple matter, and the Israeli army searched for them under every nook, cranny… and tractor. As it turned out, Col. (Res.) El-Dag remained in the Engineering Corps, advanced up the chain of command, and eventually even served as Chief Engineering Officer between 1958 and 1964.

Engineering soldiers on a mine detection mission around the time of the Six-Day War, 1967. From the book History of the Engineering Corps by Ami Shamir, p. 65.

Engineering since the dawn of history

The first known fortifications in the world can actually be found within the borders of the Land of Israel; they were built in Jericho in the seventh millennium BCE. Engineering has been necessary in every place and in every period as a means of both defense and attack. Our ancestors used engineering to figure out how best to impose an effective siege, and how to defend against a siege that was imposed on them. The renewed Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel needed solutions to protect itself from hostile activity by local Arabs and their allies. The laws of the British Mandate forbade Jews from carrying weapons, so the engineers from the Jewish underground organizations established hidden caches of weapons in kibbutzim and border communities (such a hiding place was called a slik in Hebrew). These arms caches proved essential ahead of the establishment of the State of Israel.

The first engineers to seriously dedicate themselves to the issue of how to properly protect the Jewish communities of Mandatory Palestine joined together in 1934, when the technical department of the Haganah was established. They were occupied with planning and constructing fortifications for the border settlements and within cities that had mixed Jewish-Arab populations, with the bulk of their efforts focused on establishing the “Tower and Stockade” settlements in the years 1936-1939. This was a large-scale engineering-military-settlement operation to capture strategic points throughout the country on which settlements could be established. The Haganah’s technical department played a critical role in planning the complex operation, in a way that would be effective, applicable, and safe. All the materials were prepared ahead of time. Along with a wooden tower, a barrier was built to surround the settlement. This barrier was made of two parallel wooden walls with gravel filling the gap between them. These fortifications would typically be erected within a single day.  This is how the kibbutzim Nir David, Hanita, Sha’ar HaGolan, Dan, Dafna and a total of over 50 settlements were established.

Constructing a wall around a “Tower and Stockade” settlement, late 1930s-early 1940s. This photograph is part of the Archive Network Israel project and is available as part of a collaboration between Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.

The first missions which were carried out by the underground organizations and which required advanced military-engineering knowledge took place shortly before the War of Independence. They included the Palmach’s bombing of strategic bridges on the “Night of the Bridges” in June 1946, and the Irgun’s bombing of a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Many who would later become IDF engineers gained their experience within the British Army’s Jewish Brigade. Among them was Emmanuel Shahar, who would become the first commander of the Combat Engineering Corps upon the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces.

Two tents and an old building housed the first IDF engineering school in the Jalil area – today’s Glilot, just north of Tel Aviv, which was established a few months after the beginning of the War of Independence to quickly train people in the engineering professions. Conditions were not promising, to say the least. Studies were initially offered in two languages: Hebrew and Yiddish. The few instructors were often borrowed by the fighting forces. In the small school that housed 30 students in total, there were hardly any explosives, let alone written material.

An article about the first military engineering school, published in the Davar Newspaper on August 23, 1978

During one training session dedicated to explosives, a trainee lit a delay fuse that was attached to a bomb. The trainee was gripped with fear and was unable to throw the explosive away quickly enough. Due to this moment of hesitation, peoples’ lives were suddenly in danger. Luckily, the instructor, Yossi Ben Hurin, jumped on the trainee and managed to quickly throw the explosive away from the area. The trainee was unharmed, but Ben Hurin was injured by shrapnel. This accident inspired the immortal slogan that accompanies the IDF’s Combat Engineering Corps to this day, coined by Eliezer Meron, the school’s first commander: “A sapper makes a mistake only once in his life.”

Since it was very difficult to obtain proper engineering equipment, the majority was improvised in the field. The corps members used resourcefulness, ingenuity, and whatever the British left behind, as well as equipment from large construction companies, contractors, kibbutzim, or private individuals. The shortage of mines led to the invention of dummy mines, and later also to the use of dummy tanks and dummy cannons that were activated remotely. These “fake” mines and tanks were convincing enough to require enemy forces to expend resources on removing the perceived threat. Such inventions helped the IDF cope with its own equipment shortages.

A soldier from the Combat Engineering Corps lays a line of mines during an IDF exercise in the south. Photo: Yaacov Sa’ar, Government Press Office.

Improvisation is the name of the game

The Combat Engineering Corps has not always received the recognition it deserves, even though its importance on the battlefield is enormous. On the morning of May 15th, the day after the declaration of the State of Israel, there was serious concern over a coordinated invasion by seven armies into Israel’s territory, casting a shadow over the leaders of the new state. Major General Yochanan Ratner, head of the IDF’s Planning Directorate, entered the room and said:

“The key to stopping the seven armies is in the hands of the Engineering Corps.”

The engineering personnel promised to do everything in their power to prevent Israel from needing to face seven fronts at once. Blowing up bridges over the Jordan River was one of the first and most critical actions taken by the Combat Engineering Corps at that time, as it helped prevent the Jordanian army from invading the settlements in the Jordan Valley and Beit She’an Valley. On the southern front, mines were effective in holding back the Egyptian army.

Later, breaking through Burma Road to besieged Jerusalem, the Engineering Corps played a critical role in paving the way to the capital. Equipment shortages meant that the soldiers sometimes had to work with their bare hands. The operation was completed at the very last moment, just before the first temporary truce between Israel and the Arab countries came into effect. On a part of the road, between Givat Shaul and Motza, the engineers even made use of some physical features of an ancient Roman road which passed through the area. Breaking through to the city with this road offered a lifeline for the blockaded residents of Jerusalem and a tremendous morale boost for the Jewish population which was fighting for its life.

The members of the Engineering Corps created roads wherever they were needed. The harsh battles and the pressing deadlines sometimes demanded unbelievable ingenuity, like on the eve of Operation Horev, when military forces needed to get from Be’er Sheva to Gaza, but their path was blocked: Heavy rain from late-December 1948 had turned the desert’s loess soil into muddy quicksand. For four days and nights, the crews of the Engineering Corps worked on preparing a road for safe passage of the battalions. They used whatever they could find – nets, cans, cypress trunks, and even coats spread along the road – to ensure that the wheels of the heavy trucks wouldn’t get stuck in the mud. All this was done in order to enable the IDF forces to pass through and reach their destination. At the end of the operation, Yigal Alon, who had commanded the southern front, sent a letter of appreciation to the commander of the Engineering Corps for his men’s hard work and dedication. Since that day, the Engineering Corps has always worked closely with the initial breakthrough force in every war and major operation the IDF has undertaken. No commander wants to enter unfamiliar territory without an engineering team close by to help pave the way and clear any possible threats.

A floating bridge over the Suez Canal, erected during the Yom Kippur War. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. This photograph is part of the Archive Network Israel project and is available as part of a collaboration between the Bet Hashita Archive, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.

Saluting the mines

Much is often left unsaid about the IDF’s Combat Engineering Corps. Many are simply unaware of the incredible responsibilities these soldiers undertake, as well as the changing nature of their roles, and their critical contribution to the war effort in all of the country’s major conflicts. Engineering personnel are at the forefront of any major military force. No infantry or armored division commander is willing to move without them. Their professionalism and experience in breaking through roads and eliminating risks are irreplaceable.

This is a small and professional corps, whose various units are always busy – in times of war as well as times of relative quiet. Their areas of responsibility include, among others, explosives, mining and clearing mines, breaking through obstacles, blocking roads, preparing fortifications, building and demolishing bridges, and operating heavy engineering equipment. The corps includes three regular battalions: Asaf, Lahav and Machatz, and the special unit Yahalom (the elite engineering unit used for special operations).

Forces from the IDF’s Combat Engineering Corps engaged in operational activity in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield, aimed at destroying terror infrastructure in the Palestinian Authority. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

The challenges facing the Engineering Corps are constantly changing. During the Yom Kippur War, it was tasked with facilitating the Suez Canal crossing. When the IDF was operating in Lebanon, its engineers had to cope with a massive amount of improvised explosive devices. More recently, the Engineering Corps have been focused on providing advanced solutions for uncovering and demolishing tunnels.

On October 7, reservists from the Engineering Corps were called up to serve, and they have been working tirelessly in all the sectors ever since, especially in providing unique engineering solutions for the units operating in the Gaza Strip.

A soldier from the Engineering Corps in northern Israel, October 2023. Photo: vlad_krivchansky

Soldiers from the Engineering Corps are combat warriors in every sense of the word, who are highly specialized in the following spheres:

“You need to be a soldier who uses your head all the time: where is the smartest place to plant a mine, a charge or a demolition block?” Matan, a reservist in the Combat Engineering Corps, explains. “You have to understand that the Engineering Corps maintains such a high level of operational preparedness, and the changes and adjustments are so frequent that if I need to miss one drill in the reserves, it is immediately noticeable and I need to work twice as hard during the next drill to maintain my level of competence.”

Along with the obvious risks, he says, serving in the Engineering Corps has clear advantages: “The risk in our work is so high that it creates friends for life. We have to trust each other a thousand percent.” These conditions mean that combat engineering soldiers must heavily consider the risks they face every time they are called on to dismantle a charge. As an engineering officer who identified himself as Ori said in an interview in 1969: “To this day, I salute every mine before I approach it.”

From the book Sof Maslul Palchan Baz: August 2011 Combat Engineering: “No place is too far, even if there is no road, we will pave it…”

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.


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)

Avshalom Feinberg: A Spy With a Poetic Soul

Avshalom Feinberg is known for being among the founders of the "Nili" organization, but as it turns out, even before the Jewish spy ring was established, he was already active in politics and managed to capture the hearts of women, well-known cultural figures and scientists. There is no telling who he could have become were it not for his tragic death at 27

Avshalom Feinberg. This item is part of the Archive Network Israel project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Avshalom Feinberg’s name is known primarily for his heroic involvement with Nili, a spy ring which helped British forces conquer the Land of Israel from the Ottoman Turks. One of the organization’s founders, he was the male counterpart in a famous love triangle with Rivka Aaronsohn (who claimed they were engaged to be married) and her sister Sarah (with whom he had a special relationship). Aaron Aaronsohn described him as “a knight without fear and without reproach,” but as you are about to find out, he was much more than that.

Indeed, if fate had taken a different trajectory, and Feinberg, who was quite an impressive man, had never met Aaron Aaronsohn and not become part of Nili, chances are his career would have gone down a different path. He could perhaps even have become President of the State of Israel, or at the very least, a major figure in its cultural milieu.

Feinberg was born in Gedera in 1889, a descendent of a distinguished line of intellectuals from the early-Zionist Bilu movement, a first-generation native of the Land of Israel. He possessed a gift for languages, a sharp mind, a poetic soul, and a rebellious spirit. Avshalom’s father, who had great expectations for his young offspring and intended for him to study law in Constantinople one day, had him learn Arabic and the Quran under a sheikh in Jaffa. The Arab neighbors knew Avshalom by his Arabic name, Salim. Both in these studies and at school, the young man excelled. In 1904, he graduated with distinction from the Alliance School and was granted a scholarship to the Alliance Teachers’ Seminary in Paris.

Avshalom Feinberg, aged approximately fourteen, studio portrait taken in Paris, France. Photo: Photographie Russe (89 Rue de Renner, Paris), REI-YBZ photographer. Avshalom sent this photograph from Paris to his sister Tsila, née Feinberg. This item is part of the Archive Network Israel project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The years spent in France had a profound impact on Avshalom: enamored with the language and culture, he drank in the ideas of liberty. He joined the intellectual circles of Paris and forged a close friendship with the French philosopher Jacques Maritain and the poet Charles Péguy, who both predicted a great future for him in the realms of French literature and poetry. In addition, their friendship had further-reaching consequences as it sparked new admiration for Jews in France more generally.

Following his time in France, Feinberg went to Switzerland to be treated for a neurological disease from which he was suffering and stayed in the renowned sanatorium of Professor Constantin von Monakow in Zurich. It was there that he met a scientist who would become a central figure in Zionist history. In a letter to his aunt Sonia (from the book Avshalom: Writings and Letters (Hebrew), found in the collections of the National Library of Israel), Avshalom describes a conversation he had with the biochemist Chaim Weizmann, who would later become Israel’s first President. It appears that Weizmann asked Feinberg to become his research assistant:

“And you, listen to me!” – he told me

“Forget America, come to England with me. Have you means?”

 “I do not, but I could get some from my father, or elsewhere.”

“It’s nothing, take them; forget vain arguments, you’ll repay it someday. Property, simple and compound interest, this is what I do myself these days. Do come to England… The choice is yours: Oxford, Cambridge, London, or Manchester. You will be given every possible consideration and opportunity. One year to prepare and four years of study, this is more than you need. Once you are properly equipped, you will be able to go to America or wherever you like, but you must prepare first, you must outfit yourself. Now, do! Promise me. I have been preoccupied with you for a while now. I have taken an interest in you. Now, a stone has fallen off my heart.”

I promised I would give the issue some thought.

The next day, as I was walking him to the station, he asked me in parting to come see him again.

All this took place on the night of the thirtieth of December 1907.

– From the book Avshalom: Writings and Letters (Hebrew), by Avshalom Feinberg (Hebrew), ed. Aaron Amir, published by Haifa Shikmona, 1971, p. 20)

We do not know what happened beyond this meeting; perhaps it was Weizmann that ended up recommending young Avshalom to Aaron Aaronsohn? And what would have happened had he gone to read natural sciences at Oxford? One thing is certain, Avshalom captured the hearts not only of women, but also of cultural figures and scholars.

Once he had returned home, Feinberg took up civic activism and was unafraid to speak his mind publicly. For example, Feinberg was involved in debates between religious and secular groups within the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. In this article in Herut on 5 August, 1910, he is quoted speaking at a conference protesting the Jewish religious ban on farmers working the land during the seventh shmita year. Feinberg hoped the masses would take to the streets, in support of the Jewish farming colonies against the religious authorities:

Avshalom Feinberg of Hadera cries out: “I would not call for war on the rabbis like the previous speakers, but rouse the entire nation[…] They would split Israel into their faction against the faction of youths who wish wholeheartedly to work at reviving the nation. Instead, this assembly ought to decide to call for a greater gathering, of fifty thousand, in Jerusalem…”

Avshalom was not at all religious; he even refused to put on tefillin at his Bar Mitzvah. However, he was well-versed in scripture thanks to his grandfather, who had taught him as a child, and one could argue that Judaism was dear to his heart.

At the age of 22, Avshalom met the agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn, his elder by a mere 13 years. This meeting marked the beginning of the best-known period of Avshalom’s life. Aaronsohn ran a facility for agricultural experiments in Atlit and had another branch in Hadera. Highly impressed by young Feinberg, he first placed the young man in charge of the Hadera branch, and then made him into his own secretary and right-hand man, despite his lack of agronomical knowledge.

During their six years of friendship, until Feinberg’s highly mysterious and bewildering death in the desert in 1917, Avshalom was a member of the Aaronsohn household, and this period is well-attested. Aaronsohn expressed his love and appreciation of Feinberg in the best way available to an agronomist—by naming a new species of onion after him, which he discovered on the foothills of Mt. Hermon: Allium feinbergii. Eventually, Avshalom became one of the founding members of the Land of Israel’s first Jewish underground group. The Nili organization dedicated itself, under Aaronsohn’s leadership, to collecting information on Ottoman forces in the Land of Israel, in the hopes of helping the British Army conquer the region during the First World War. This would indeed come to pass.

Thanks to the wealth of written material young Feinberg left behind, readers have been able to discover surprising little-known facets of his exceptional personality. In a 1911 travel journal he kept while working at the agricultural research station in Atlit, he expressed his connection to nature and spirituality:

“I stood stunned, speechless at the beauty of the plants. All I could think was that I could well understand this way of honoring God.”

Feinberg’s love of nature was evident even at the end of his life. He was killed in the desert when he was merely 27 years old. He disappeared in the sand dunes around Rafah in the Sinai Peninsula—then the Turkish-British frontline—on 20 January 1917. All initial attempts at finding his body met with failure. It was only after the Six-Day War, once the IDF captured the area where he was killed, that his remains were identified thanks to a palm tree that had grown there, apparently from seeds that were in Feinberg’s pocket when he fell.

The palm tree that grew from seeds in Avshalom Feinberg’s pocket, near Rafah. Next to it stands Lt. Col. Shlomo Ben-Elkana with some local Arabs. The skeleton Ben-Elkana found was ultimately identified as belonging to Avshalom Feinberg and transferred in a military ceremony to the cemetery at Mt. Herzl. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Long before Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain were even born, Avshalom Feinberg could have been considered the first member of the notorious “27 Club”. Feinberg was an artist: a virtuoso of the written word, talented, clever, courageous, and creative. The poetic soul of this secular man who worked tirelessly for the revival of the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel can be observed in many of his writings. We are left to wonder what he could have become and what he could have written and created, had his life not come to such a cruel end, somewhere far off in the desert.