The State’s Watchful Guardians: Female Field Observers on the Border

IDF field observer war rooms are spread across Israel’s borders, working 24/7. The soldiers and officers who operate the systems contained within know that the security of their entire sector often depends on their judgment calls. On October 7, dozens of field observers were killed by Hamas terrorists who broke into Israeli army outposts. This is the story of the IDF’s field observers – the eyes that protect Israel’s borders.

An IDF field observer on duty, never taking her eyes off the screen for a moment. Photo: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

It’s July 2020, in the early hours of the morning. The observation war room of the southern Golan Heights is relatively quiet, but dramatic events are about to unfold. Noa, a veteran tatzpitanit, or field observer,  scans her sector on her screen. She knows the area like the back of her hand, even when it’s dark out. She knows the farmers who pass by every day, the shepherds, the nearby villagers.

But this time she identifies four suspicious figures – bent over, moving cautiously. To the untrained eye, they look like wild animals in search of a meal. Noa identifies them as human figures carrying large brown bags and moving towards Israel’s border fence.

She declares an ongoing incident. Additional field observers, a sergeant and the officer of the war room, are called in, while elite Maglan soldiers prepare an ambush near the fence for the uninvited guests. Meantime, the four can be seen splitting up on screen, with three of them moving towards the fence and one staying behind to watch their back. They place the explosives and quickly retreat, certain that they’ve succeeded in their mission – when IDF forces open fire on them. Noa the field observer and the southern Golan war room managed to prevent four Hezbollah terrorists from carrying out their hostile plans.

This is just one of thousands of stories that exemplify the critical role played by field observers in protecting Israel’s borders – by stopping terrorism, weapons and drug smuggling.

Field observers during an exercise. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

Field observers are part of the IDF’s Border Defense Corps, which includes combat battalions alongside male and female combat intelligence collection soldiers. The field observers are charged with the duty of endlessly surveying their respective sectors, across all of Israel’s borders. Oftentimes, observers will be the first to identify suspicious activities and be the first to have to make the judgment call of whether to call in combat forces.

Combat intelligence collection soldiers in training. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

Field observers are combat support troops, who work from observation war rooms in the most dangerous of areas. We received tragic confirmation of this fact on October 7, when dozens of field observers were killed trying to protect their outposts and war rooms. They were also among the first to identify the danger and attempt to warn of it. They serve in the Border Defense Corps alongside light infantry units like the Karakal, Bardelas and Lions of the Jordan battalions – all containing male and female soldiers fighting side by side.

In the 1990s, the IDF began to seriously consider how and when to integrate women into combat roles in the IDF, though there were earlier cases as well. There are still voices that oppose the integration of women into these roles, but recent events have shown that female combat soldiers are up to the task. In recent years, the IDF has become one of the most interesting armies in the world when it comes to women in combat and combat support roles. While many armies around the world integrate women in their combat array, Israeli female combat and combat support troops take part in real time fighting on a nearly unprecedented scale in modern times, turning them into an interesting test case and the subject of many studies.

Moshe Dayan as IDF Chief of Staff, 1950s. Photo: Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel. In 1940, Moshe Dayan commanded a team of Australian and Jewish soldiers who fought the Axis powers. as part of the British Army. While carrying out observation of a bombing target in the Beirut area, he was shot through his binoculars, losing an eye. When he returned to Mandatory Palestine, he became famous as a war hero, developing into one of the most influential public figures in Israel

46-Foot-High Observation Towers

Observation is one of the most important, and most ancient, methods of intelligence gathering. The first Zionists to develop what would become the Israeli intelligence doctrine belonged to the NILI underground led by Aaron Aaronsohn, which provided the British Army in WWI with information on Ottoman forces stationed in the Land of Israel.

British General Edmund Allenby, who ultimately took the region from the Ottomans, would later write of Aaronsohn’s contribution to the British victory: “He was mainly responsible for the formation of my Field Intelligence organisation behind Turkish lines.” In 1917, the NILI underground members were caught. Many were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Sarah Aaronsohn was captured, cruelly tortured, and died from her wounds three days after shooting herself.

NILI underground members Sarah Aaronsohn and Avshalom Feinberg, Damascus, Syria, 1916. This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network (IAN) and is made available thanks to the collaboration of Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel

During the War of Independence, the first observation war rooms were established near the country’s borders, and these were tasked with gathering and analyzing intelligence information based on observation, aerial photos, and more. The intelligence units would accompany the combat companies, and the intelligence gathered served the higher-ups to prepare for future hostilities. From that time until about the 1990s, observation was conducted mainly from towers established at IDF outposts and along Israel’s borders.

Soldier looking out at the Jordanian border, 1971. Photo: Boris Carmi. Source: the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

“The soldiers ask that we protect them”

In the early 2000s and especially due to the establishment of the Separation Barrier, the IDF began to develop the field of observation on a visual-technological basis. This was the period during which the first female field observers began operating their systems in the border region war rooms. In the past few decades, thanks to technological innovations, the field of visual intelligence has evolved considerably. Today, field observers work with technology allowing for far greater movement, in-depth observation, detailed imagery, and of course the endless monitoring of the area on a scale that was not possible before.

Although they have been doing their job for over twenty years, public awareness of the importance of their role hit the headlines as a result of that terrible day in October. Field observers were a significant element among those who suspected, identified and gave warning of Hamas’ plans ahead of time. Not only that but as soldiers stationed on the borders, tasked with monitoring dangerous areas, they were the first to see the attack coming in real time, before anyone else.

Field observers know today, more than ever, just how important their work is. Stav, who served as one, says: “The field observers know their sector the best. People can’t understand just how intimately. We identify the people who live in the area, identify every tree, every rock. We can identify if people have bad intentions based on their body language.”

Field observers in the northern sector. Photo: private album

Thanks to technological progress and the tactical benefits of their work, the responsibilities of the women serving in these roles have changed and expanded over time. Beyond warning of suspicious activities and scanning the border, field observers also observe active IDF operations in real time, watching over the combat soldiers as they move through terrain and helping to protect them with their knowledge of the area.

Gal, a field observer serving in the reserves, added that “for us as young women aged 18-19, to take part in such sensitive operations, with special units, to look the enemy in the eye and be one step ahead of them, this is a powerful sense of mission”.

Every field observer has a wealth of hair-raising events to tell of, few of which hit the headlines.

Eden, another field observer serving in the reserves, said: “In one of the operations, for which we even received a citation from the brigade commander, we directed forces inside a hostile city during the night hours. I identified an ambush that was set for the soldiers about a hundred meters away from the force, of course I announced an immediate stop to the advance. And thanks to our discovery, the forces ended the mission without casualties and of course while catching those who tried to harm us. In that moment, when you’re in the war room and you know there’s a threat a few meters from the force, you’re the one who makes the decision that we’re not advancing and the force listens to you. The soldiers know what we can do and want us to protect them.”

Five years ago, on October 7 2018, a terrorist murdered two Israeli citizens – Ziv Hajbi and Kim Levengrond Yehezkel. The two worked together with the terrorist at the Alon Group factory near the city of Ariel, where Jews worked alongside Palestinians in what was supposed to be a symbol of coexistence.

After tying Kim up, shooting her, as well as shooting Ziv and wounding other workers, the terrorist got away. For two whole months, the hunt was on for him. The soldiers of the observation war room in the Shechem (Nablus) area were an inseparable part of the operation – “One day, we identified him with new clothes on, for instance, this proved he had help,” Stav says. After a two-month manhunt, the terrorist was captured, to the joy of the field observers who helped capture him with their hard work.

Ynet article, 13.12.2018. Screenshot from the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Day-in and day-out, Israel’s borders are protected by brave, intelligent, and highly motivated women. Their eyes scan the border looking for danger wherever it lurks. Even today, after suffering the trauma of October 7 in the most personal, painful manner, these dedicated soldiers continue to occupy the observation rooms and serve as the eyes of the whole country.



I would like to wholeheartedly thank the field observers who shared their fascinating stories for this article: Gili Yuval, Tal Grazi, Stav Ref, Gal Sharabi, and Eden Gorevitch.

Women who served as field observers are currently working on founding a memorial association for the field observers who fell defending IDF posts during October 7.

May their memory be a blessing.

Those Who Dream of Givati: The Many Lives of the Purple Brigade

The IDF's Givati Brigade came into being during Israel's War of Independence, even before the Jewish state was officially established. This is the story of one of the Israeli army's leading infantry brigades, and the famous fighting spirit bequeathed to it by its founder, Shimon “Givati” Avidan

Givati soldiers setting out on an ambush, 1948-9. Photo: Museum of the History of Gedera and the Biluim. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network and is made available thanks to the collaboration between the Museum of the History of Gedera and the Biluim, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel

On November 29, 1947, the UN adopted the resolution creating a Jewish state alongside an Arab state in the lands of the British Mandate of Palestine. The Jewish population, collectively known as the Yishuv, as well as Jews around the world, finally had good reason to dance in the streets. In Rome, Jews even celebrated in front the Arch of Titus, with its engraving of the tragedy of the last Jewish exile, two thousand years before.

But as is always the case in Jewish history, happiness became mixed with sadness. Mobs of angry Arabs who resented the UN decision, both in the country and in neighboring lands, did not wait for the celebrations to subside. On the day after the resolution was passed, seven Jews were killed in retaliation.

This was the start of the War of Independence. Fighters and members of all the Jewish underground movements, alongside new immigrants drafted right off the boats docking at Haifa port, got together to begin building and organizing the young army that would soon be fighting five larger ones.

Shimon Avidan was a veteran fighter in the Palmach, a branch of the Haganah which was the Yishuv’s best-trained force. He was commander of the company in which Yitzhak Rabin got his start as a young officer. Avidan was tasked with establishing a trained infantry brigade to protect Jewish settlements from attack. In early December 1947, the 5th Brigade was officially launched and given the name “Givati”, which was Avidan’s underground code name.

Maj. General (Aluf) Yitzhak Sadeh (right) and Shimon Avidan, Givati Brigade commander, 1948. Photo: Nadav Man, Bitmuna, the Yitzak Sadeh Collection. Collection Source: Yoram Sadeh, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The soldiers of this new brigade had no time to celebrate. The situation was dire. Fighting began immediately and once the Arab states invaded in May of 1948, the Jewish Yishuv was under attack from all sides. The 5th Brigade was sent to the most difficult fronts, taking part in some of the most significant battles in the War of Independence, such as Operation Yoav in October 1948, the conquest of Julis, as well as the famous battles for Kibbutz Nitzanim and Kibbutz Negba.


The Battle for Negba


Kibbutz Negba member at work, 1947. Kibbutz buildings visible in the background. Photo: Nadav Man, Bitmuna. Kibbutz Negba – Early Days Collection. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In 1939, a new kibbutz was founded by settlement groups formed by the Hashomer Hatza’ir movement. At first it was called Givat Ganim. A year later, the name was changed to Negba. At the time, Negba was one of the southernmost Jewish settlements, between Kiryat Gat and Ashkelon. It sits near the border with Gaza, and it was across this border that the Egyptian forces came, reinforced by mercenaries from Sudan and militia fighters representing a new religious-political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Michah Netzer, a soldier in the Givati Brigade’s 54th Battalion, recalled: “North of Negba was Ibdis Hill, on which there was a large outpost belonging to the Egyptian Army. From this hill, on a clear day, you can see across the country, at least as far as the Gederah area. On the night the soldiers of the 53rd Battalion raided Ibdis, they surprised the Egyptians. And despite the surprise, fewer than half the soldiers made it back on foot. There were many wounded and dead. But they succeeded. They succeeded in conquering the hill and also seized a lot of equipment.”

Soldiers of the Givati Brigade’s 51st Battalion seize Egyptian military equipment at the abandoned Ibdis outpost, 1948. Photo: Benno Rothenberg. From: Benno Rothenberg Archive, the Israel State Archives, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

“When we arrived the night after to replace them, we established ourselves on the ground and many volunteers arrived from settlements in the area at lightning speed and began helping us dig communication trenches and defensive positions protected from shells and artillery. That night, Yisrael Galili, who was the Deputy Defense Minister, arrived and he told us – ‘I saw the thin ranks, but the spirit fills in the breaches. That spirit is the spirit of Givati.’ Thanks to that nighttime operation, my platoon suffered fewer losses.”

Yisrael Galili, volunteering to help dig trenches along with civilians and soldiers, 1948. Photo: Aryeh Peck. From the Aryeh Peck Collection, Kibbutz Na’an. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Despite the fighting spirit and overall effort of the Yishuv, the young State of Israel suffered many losses, including soldiers and civilians. Some 6,000 were killed in the war, a full percent of the total Jewish population of the country in 1948.

Ezra Hirschfeld, a soldier in the Givati Brigade’s 54th Battalion, who died at the age of 18. Photo courtesy of the Haganah Heritage Organization website

One of the fallen was Ezra Hirschfeld, who was working as a young journalist for the Al Hamishmar newspaper when he was called to enlist in the Givati Brigade. He was barely 18. During the fighting, he kept a diary describing his feelings as well as the battles themselves. Here’s what he wrote on July 13, 1948:

“I don’t remember any other moment in my life in which I felt the insignificance of man. His incapacity and glaring helplessness. Over there, a kilometer and a half from me some Egyptian artillerist is adjusting the targeting device, coolly calculating the shift in wind, degrees, and distance, and operating the mechanism. Now the firing process begins: a cap is punctured, gunpowder set alight, gasses create pressure, the shell is released. 5 seconds later it will explode into 1000 sharp fragments, each of which alone can bring death, floating in the air. And all that time sit I, Ezra Hirschfeld, a civilized man more or less – ‘the apex of creation’ homo sapiens anyways, bent over in my trench with no influence whatsoever on the flight path of the shell, not even by so much as a millimeter, no ability to evade it, or defend against it, all I can do is bow my head covered in a thin steel helmet and…wait for the shell to explode. Whether this shell falls on my head and tears me into dozens of pieces or explodes at a distance of five meters from me and eliminates my friend without my being harmed at all, or explodes out there in the field without causing harm to anyone, or doesn’t explode at all – all these questions hang in the air, dependent on the wind.”

On July 28, 1948, Ezra was seriously injured on the battlefield, dying a few hours later. He was 18 years old.

A report on the death of Ezra Hirschfeld, a soldier and reporter for Al Hamishmar newspaper. Hatzofe, August 2, 1948

After 1948: Samson’s Foxes in the Field


Givati soldiers in training. Photo: Tzvi Redlich Collection. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network and is made available thanks to the collaboration between Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel

Despite the heavy loss of life, Israel succeeded in defeating the five armies that besieged it by the end of the War of Independence and even expanded its borders beyond the territory assigned it in the UN Partition Plan. In October 1948, Israel succeeded in conquering the southern Negev region from the Egyptian Army in Operation Yoav, after it had been cut off from the rest of the country, thus securing a significant military advantage for the remainder of the war.

Following the 1948 conflict, the Givati Brigade continued to serve as a significant force within the IDF. Its character was changed slightly and its activity, as a jeep patrol unit among other things, was expanded after the war. The brigade’s name was also changed and the unit now became known as Samson’s Foxes. This name was coined by Abba Kovner, then the brigade’s education and cultural officer.

“The soldiers of Givati are the successors of Samson”, Kovner wrote, making reference to the biblical hero who perished when he collapsed the Temple of Dagon upon himself and his captors, declaring: “Let me die with the Philistines”. Kovner continued – “And just as the Egyptians of today are not just the successors of the ancient Egyptians, but also the successors of the Philistines, so are the Givati soldiers the descendants of David and Samson and they must fight an uncompromising war against them and the company of jeeps at their head must be called ‘Samson’s Foxes.’”

But over the years the brigade was significantly pared down. A major change came in the mid-1980s. As part of the lessons learned from the First Lebanon War, Givati was reestablished as the brigade with the purple berets we know today.

In this second incarnation, especially since the early 1990s, Givati stood out as a unique infantry brigade, specializing in the Gaza Strip region. In the late 1990s, its popularity reached a peak thanks to the Israeli TV drama Tironut (“Basic Training”), which was a huge hit and which told the story of soldiers in a Givati Battalion.

The Givati anthem became well-known in Israel as a result of the TV show. In one famous scene, the trainees are asked by their sergeant to sing the song, with one of the soldiers changing the lyrics at whim and, of course, being punished for it. The anthem was written by Amos Etinger and put to music by Effi Netzer:

“At the sight of the sun rising, the sunsets of spring

I heard the voice of the spirit

A spirit which wanders about

A spirit we call Givati

Those who dreamed of Givati, those who breathed Givati

Those who walked the paths along with us…”

As opposed to the first version of the Givati Brigade, the second incarnation did not come about under emergency conditions stemming from the various pressures of war. Rather, this reformation was based on strategic thinking – the Givati Brigade was designated as a special infantry unit trained to carry out the most sensitive tasks. Since its original establishment, Givati’s soldiers and commanders have been known for their courage and bravery, as those who always take part in the most difficult and significant battles and operations.

From the War of Independence to the current war in Gaza, for seventy-five years, one thing has continued to accompany the Givati Brigade – that unique spirit which makes up for the lack in numbers, the spirit of Givati.

We Shall Return: The Spirit of Kibbutz Nirim Will Prevail

"We shall return" - these were the words printed in Hebrew on t-shirts made by the survivors of Kibbutz Nirim. These words embody a history of heroism, pioneering, culture and Zionism which should serve as a model for all of us. Kibbutz Nirim, founded in 1946, faced a desperate battle for its very existence just two years afterwards. It survived then and survives now thanks to the unique spirit of its members.

25-year-old Dora Avni, a member of Kibbutz Nirim, cleans her rifle as her two sons, six-year-old Amir and two-year-old Arnon watch her, 1955. Amir was killed at the age of 22 when his tractor hit a mine while he worked in Nirim’s avocado grove. Photo: Moshe Fridan, courtesy of the Government Press Office; the Hebrew words in the lower left corner are "Anachnu Nachzor" (We Shall Return), this logo was designed by Arnon Avni, a graphic artist and member of Kibbutz Nirim

“Three elements came first to Nirim in the desert: the cows, the babies and the library. The cows – a testament to the growth of the farm, the babies – a testament to faith in the future, and the library – a sign and parable of high culture.” (Shula Ram, one of the founders of Kibbutz Nirim, in her introduction to the book The First Fifty Years, 1946-1996 (Hebrew), published in honor of Nirim’s fiftieth anniversary)

Nirim’s beginnings were very modest – just four shacks comprised the first settlement point for Kibbutz Nirim (then Dangur), on land just a few kilometers from its current location. The kibbutz was set up before the State of Israel had even been born, just after Yom Kippur in 1946, as part of the “11 points” plan, when 11 new settlement points were established overnight and under the nose of the British authorities, most of them in the southern Negev region.

Aerial photo of Kibbutz Nirim at the Dangur settlement point, 1946. Unknown photographer. Source: National Photographic Collection, Government Press Office

Nirim is a kibbutz established by Jews born in Israel, or “sabras” (the nickname refers to a desert cactus known to be prickly on the outside but sweet and soft on the interior). They were alumni of the Hashomer Hatza’ir youth movement affiliated with Labor Zionism, who also served in the Palmach, a branch of the Haganah. Later, they were joined by additional groups of immigrants from various countries, but some of that rough and stubborn “sabra-ness” stuck to all the members of the kibbutz’s founding generation, and helped them overcome the many difficulties they encountered over the years.

39 young men and women lived in the small outpost that comprised Kibbutz Nirim at the time, cultivating and protecting it. They worked in agriculture, in difficult conditions where water was brought in wagons and handed out sparingly. Aware of the dangers of residing in a border community, the kibbutz members fortified their location as much as they could, building bunkers and defensive trenches.

Kibbutz Nirim members on their way to work in the fields, 1947. Photo: Zoltan Kruger. Source: National Photographic Collection, Government Press Office

In their difficult and heroic battle during the War of Independence, members of Nirim faced an attack by hundreds of Egyptian soldiers who stormed the simple fence erected around their settlement point in Dangur. Somehow, someway, they managed to stop them. With the few weapons they had, they systematically and intelligently fought in order to create the impression that they represented a far larger force than they actually were. They suffered casualties, but so did the Egyptians, who were apparently stunned by the ferocity of the fighting, which they did not expect from such a small outpost and which led them to flee. 11 of the members of the young kibbutz, almost a third of the male and female fighters, were killed in that attack.

Members of Kibbutz Nirim digging trenches before the War of Independence, 1948. Unknown photographer. Source: National Photographic Collection, Government Press Office

Before the battle, a celebratory sign was hung over the shack serving as Nirim’s dining hall, an expression of the spirit of the times: “It is not the tank that will win, but the human being in it.” After the battle, the destruction left behind was so great that hardly anything remained in Dangur. The entire shack was destroyed. Only the wall and its sign remained standing, a symbol of the spirit of the members of Nirim, who survived that difficult day of battle.

Sign on the wall of the dining room shack, the only one standing at the end of the battle: “It is not the tank that will win, but the human being in it” – left from a celebration of May Day, 1948. Photo courtesy of Dr. Eldad Haruvi of the Palmach Museum
This article from Davar describes the mourning process of the members of Kibbutz Nirim, a year after the battle. The headline quotes the slogan on the sign in the previous photo. May 16, 1949

Hardly a year passed, and the bruised but proud kibbutz published a special commemorative booklet in May, 1949: “Nirim Against the Enemy,” telling the story of the attack on Nirim and its fallen. This booklet is an early example of the cultural activity and spirit that would yet develop and flourish in the kibbutz in the years to come. This booklet includes the first appearance of a unique memorial Yizkor prayer, which would serve Kibbutz Nirim throughout its existence during Israeli Memorial Day services:

“We will remember our comrades – our finest members who saturated the parched ground of the Negev with their blood.  A malicious hand plotted against the little we built, which we planted and sowed, it could not defeat us for before it stood the faces and arms of the builders of the Negev, of the liberators of Jerusalem, brave soldiers – of eleven comrades who swore: They shall not set foot on our land!”

“Nirim Against the Enemy”, published a year after the Battle of Nirim in the War of Independence

In the 1949 memorial booklet, members expressed both mourning over the destruction and the loss along with hope and determination to press on:

“The beautiful Dangur with its red thatched roofs, which we so often took pride in, was destroyed and burned, shack by shack. Everything above was burned, but the Egyptians didn’t penetrate the [settlement] point. Nirim in Dangur was destroyed and another Nirim will be built. In a place close to the place where our comrades fell, we will erect our homes. And there in our new place, we will erect a monument, a dear living witness to our comrades who fell.” (Benny, p. 39)

Members wanted to preserve the memory of their fallen comrades as a living, vital thing, not as a silent monument. The flourishing of the kibbutz was their monument, as they promised in the memorial booklet:

“A year passed. Months passed – and we were not healed. The signs of the disasters that befell us in just one year were etched deep in our hearts. Correct are those who say that everyone carries a small cemetery inside them.

We need a monument bearing witness to the lives that were cut down. We want a home which will preserve their image, with their smile.

We will erect a house of culture. A house of culture which will be for the leisure of a comrade after his work is done. A place of emotional and cultural refreshment – such as they, our comrades who are not with us in this hour, would want it to be.

Not a memorial monument alone, not a silent stone. A house thrumming with life, a house for generations and for our children after us.

And in this house their image will be preserved, everything that was and remains alive in our hearts and all they had will be preserved. For them to be with us day after day, hour after hour, and for the expression of our shared lives to be deeper, more honest.

This needs to be a good, warm and pleasant house of culture, a house which will bind to it the parents, the relatives and friends. This is the project which will be erected in their memory.”

The first decade was also hard on the members of Nirim, who had to deal with innumerable challenges of survival in the impossible conditions of a desolate wilderness, little water, blinding sandstorms, and impassable access roads.

Kibbutz Nirim members opposite a work chart, showing their assignments for the coming day or week, 1955. Photo: Moshe Fridan. Source: National Photographic Collection, Government Press Office
Nirim children taking a walk through the kibbutz’s defensive trenches, at the entrance to the shelter adjacent to the children’s home. Likely early 1960s. Photo: Benno Rothenberg. Source: the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Although life in Nirim was never entirely peaceful when it came to security, the hardships didn’t dampen the spirits of the kibbutz members. They remained proud of their heritage, and lived up to the vision of the kibbutz’s early members. This was expressed in the songs which were a central part of Nirim’s culture.

When the kibbutz decided to print its own song book, the members chose the unequivocal title – This Is How We Sing Here – Nirim 1956-1967. The songs were collected by Orah Chasin, a kibbutz member who eventually departed Nirim, for whom this collection was a sort of farewell gift for those she left behind. It was likely published around 1967, before the Six-Day War, when things were relatively quiet on the kibbutz. The booklet is an example of the unique and wide-ranging culture which developed in Nirim, which strengthened the sense of pride and belonging its residents felt.

Cover of This Is How We Sing Here – Nirim 1956-1967, copy held at the National Library of Israel


The first song appearing in the collection is a local Nirim version of Shir HaShalom – “The Song of Peace” – a song that was well-known throughout the kibbutz movement and which was written by Nirim member Tziki Dinstein during the Sinai Campaign of 1956. The song courageously expressed the striving for a shared, peaceful life with Arab neighbors, which seems like a distant dream now but which was sung innumerable times in Kibbutz Nirim. The opening verse could be translated as:

“See gentlemen, there will be a new order,

There will yet be peace on our border

And we’ll travel to Khan Yunis to see a move flick,

With Abdul Wahab, in spoken Arabic.”

The Lyrics of Shir HaShalom – “The Song of Peace”

The booklet ends with the representative statement:

“You will yet see what kind of kibbutz there will be here in Nirim! The kind that others will come to from other Kibbutzim to learn their lessons [Hebrew: shi’urim – lessons]!!”

Over the years, the kibbutz was considered one of the undisputed pillars of Jewish settlement in the Western Negev and the Gaza border region. A well-known joke in neighboring Kibbutz Nir Oz demonstrates this nicely:

“When you ask a Kibbutz Nir Oz member where he’s from, the answer is ‘next to Nirim’…when we were kids, we tended to make fun of the children of Kibbutz Nirim who thought they were the center of the world; so we said that we are ‘next to Nirim.’ Or in other words: we are next to the center of the world (important, but less so).”

-Hadar Rubin, on her Facebook page

T-shirts printed at Kibbutz Nirim also express this sense of local pride, a pride which even the events of October 7 could not trample. They were all designed by Arnon Avni, an illustrator, graphic artist, and caricaturist and a member of Kibbutz Nirim. On this shirt, the first to be printed, the kibbutz is placed among the largest, most famous cities in the world:

“Paris, New York, London, Nirim.” Photo courtesy of Yinon Hefetz, from Kibbutz Nirim. Design: Arnon Avni

The shirt below, printed to mark the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, reads: “Not Giving Up on Nirim.”

Ela Bargil of Kibbutz Nirim, with a shirt reading – “Not Giving Up on Nirim” – printed in Nirim in August 2014 to mark the end of Operation Protective Edge. Design: Arnon Avni. Photo: Arnon Avni

During the October 7 Massacre, five people were killed in Nirim – three kibbutz members and two guests. Four kibbutz members and one guest were also among those kidnapped to Gaza. Now, with 2023 nearing its end and after the tragic events which struck the kibbutz and the whole western Negev region, the strong spirit of Kibbutz Nirim is being felt once more, and a new shirt (not yet printed) now bears the simple message – “We Shall Return.”

Proposed shirt design by Arnon Avni. Regarding the thought process behind the shirt, Avni writes: “…it features an anemone [type of flower] which is a kind of symbol of the whole [Gaza] border region which we are all part of and also two petals which have wilted. Those who choose to see them as drops of blood or a kind of broken heart – will not be missing the point. The words ‘We Shall Return’ are the journey we have begun. They are written in a freestyle which can be seen as a signature, as a guarantee.”

The shirts are a moving testament to the kibbutz members’ sense of belonging to their land and the amazing project they built on it, despite the enormous difficulties. It’s the kind of local pride which strengthens those who remain. It’s perhaps not surprising that Nirim was the first kibbutz to publicly declare that its members have decided to return home as soon as this becomes possible.

We will end with the final lines of that Yizkor memorial prayer from 1949:

 “We will remember them, their nicknames, the times of comfort and pain that they lived through with us. For in all that we will build and erect, their name will yet arise and be remembered. Without words – in the founding of a building, in every dunam of land we sow and reap – for that was the yearning of their soul, in life and in death.”

May the kibbutz recover its former glory in our own day, as well, with the same speed and the same passion that was felt after the War of Independence, a passion to build and grow. May the memory of the murdered serve as fuel for rebuilding, for pioneering activity and cultural creation, things they know so well in Kibbutz Nirim.


In the preparation of this article, we made use of Galia Heller Kramer’s seminar paper:
 יצירה עצמית של חברי קיבוץ נירים בשנות החמישים והשישים [Hebrew].

We would like to thank Kibbutz Nirim members Bar Hefetz and Anat Marla, for their help in preparing this article.


This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”

Click here to see all of the articles and stories


A Jewish Game of Thrones: The Bloody Tragedy of the Hasmonean Dynasty

We think we know them from the story of Hannukah and its miracles, but the heroic victory of Judah the Maccabee was just the prologue to the broader story of the Hasmonean Kingdom – a story that begins with a single family's dream of an independent Judea, continues with military and political glory papering over deep internal rot, and ends with destruction and the death of a beautiful queen at the hands of her husband

Miriam the Hasmonean on her way to execution, painting by Edward Hopley

“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” – Frank Herbert

If there is a story where we almost never stop at the right point and almost never reach the (bitter) end, it’s the story of the Hasmoneans.

Every year, on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev, we celebrate the moment of a glorious victory – a victory which seemed almost impossible, a true miracle. But this victory is really just the prelude to the story of the Hasmoneans, as both a family and a historically unique monarchical dynasty in the annals of the Jewish People.

To understand who they were, we would do well to re-examine the familiar Hanukkah story, and look beyond the usual “happily ever after” bit where we usually stop, to see what came after that glorious moment.

The Angel of the Maccabees, by Gustave Dore

It all started with a rebellion. Or perhaps the persecution that preceded it? They were tightly connected.

In the first half of the second century BCE, Jerusalem was ruled by the Seleucids, who we often call “the Greeks” in our Hannukah stories and prayers. Seleucus I was among the generals who inherited parts of Alexander the Great’s sprawling empire. The Seleucid Empire, though smaller than Alexander’s, still stretched from Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Syria, and the Land of Israel, all the way to the Indus River at its height.

Antiochus IV, who ever so humbly called himself Epiphanes (“God Manifest”) and who has been commemorated by kindergarten teachers throughout the Jewish world as “Antiochus the Wicked”, rose to power at a bad time for his kingdom: his father had just suffered a very serious defeat at the hands of a new rising power to the west – Rome. He lost significant parts of his empire to the Romans (and other nations which jumped on the opportunity), and was forced to sign a humiliating surrender agreement which included astronomical reparations.

In the meantime, Jerusalem and the surrounding area of Judea had for centuries, since the famous Edict of Cyrus the Great, enjoyed a degree of religious autonomy, with the Jewish the High Priest presiding over worship at the Temple. The territory had been ruled by a series of empires which toppled one another – the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Ptolemies, and now the Seleucids. But for most of this time, the Jews had a varying measure of religious freedom to maintain their worship in the Temple and the commandments and laws of their faith.

Historians are divided on what led Antiochus to change this arrangement which had worked so well for all his predecessors, but whatever the reason – he decided to intervene in the religious practices in Jerusalem and Judea, outlawing all Jewish rituals and desecrating the Temple.

It is here that the story we all know and love begins, though the degree of accuracy often varies in the telling: Mattathias the priest and his five sons raised the banner of rebellion. Whether the spark was an attempt to force the residents of Modi’in to bring a sacrifice to the Greek gods, or the story of Mattathias’ daughter Hannah, who rebelled against the terrifying decree of “the first night” – either way, battle was joined. Significant portions of the Jewish People gathered round Mattathias and his sons upon hearing the battle cry “Whoever is to God to me” (or something to that effect), sick of the cruel Hellenic oppression and willing to die to return to observing the Torah and its commandments in the open.

Mattathias and the Apostate, by Gustave Dore

Judah the Maccabee, the third of Mattathias’ sons, formed and led the small rebel army – at first, with guerilla actions and later in organized, open battles against the Seleucid army. He went up to Jerusalem with his soldiers and managed to take over large parts of it, most importantly the Temple – which was cleaned and purified. Jewish religious rituals resumed.

This is where the story of the miracle of Hannukah more or less ends – Judah the Maccabee defeated the armies of the Hellenistic empire and relit the Menorah or candelabrum in the Temple. The year was 164 BCE. Since then, every year, and in memory of the victory of the Jewish light over Greek darkness, we celebrate the holiday of Hannukah.

Mattathias, meanwhile, had passed away a year before, and did not get to see his sons’ success.

This event was not only the “happy ending” we celebrate every year, but rather the beginning of the long path to Jewish independent rule in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel – a rule which would ultimately become a monarchy for all intents and purposes and which would end in blood. Plenty of blood.


Season One – The Brothers

To be honest, it was bloody from the beginning.

Peace did not come after Judah’s famous initial victories. The Seleucids were not so quick to give up the lands they had ruled, and although the decrees of Antiochus (which had proven themselves to be a rallying cry for the majority of Jews to join with the Hasmoneans against the Seleucids) were rescinded, the Hellenistic kings continued to send troops to fight the rebels in Judea.

Six years after the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days instead of one, Judah was defeated by the general Bacchides, falling in the Battle of Elasa. His brother Eleazar also perished when he was trampled to death by one of the Seleucid army’s war elephants. For a while, it appeared the original status quo had been restored – the Greek religious persecutions had been undone, but so too, it seemed, had the Hasmonean victory.

The Heroism of Eleazar, by Philip James de Loutherbourg

The Hasmoneans and their supporters, however, were not gripped by despair. The leadership of the rebellion was taken up by another Hasmonean brother – Jonathan, who was a gifted commander and perhaps more importantly – a skilled diplomat. He returned the Hasmoneans to Jerusalem after a series of military victories, while working primarily at the diplomatic level, especially by cleverly exploiting the endless infighting among those claiming the Seleucid crown. He convinced the Seleucid authorities to give him effective control, and in 150 BCE, he received the titles of strategos (general) and “meridarch” (akin to a civil governor).

Jonathan managed to hold these title for seven years before being murdered by a Seleucid ruler – Diodotus Tryphon. He was replaced as leader by Simon – the last brother left alive.

All these stormy events in Judea were accompanied by a family situation which had no equal throughout history: While still alive, Mattathias had been the clear leader of the rebellion, even though his age likely prevented him from participating in the battles themselves. After his death, he left the leadership to his five sons, advising them to follow Judah – who was not the eldest, but whom Mattathias considered the most appropriate one to lead the nation in war.

And they indeed followed Judah, just as they would later follow the brothers who succeeded him.

Scholars question almost every detail about this period, but one thing still remains unequivocally clear – Mattathias’ sons did not fight amongst themselves. The torch kept being passed from one brother to the next as the fight against the Seleucids continued and the brothers died one after the other, with the next one’s leadership never being questioned by his siblings.

Simon, the last of the brothers, was the one who secured full independence for Judea. He didn’t yet call himself a king, but the moment he fully took the reins of civilian control from the Seleucids and the tax burden was lifted (in 140 BCE) is the moment from which we officially begin counting the years of Hasmonean reign.

The First Book of Maccabees (15:1-9) tells of this moment:

“Antiochus, son of King Demetrius, sent a letter from the islands of the sea to Simon, the priest and ethnarch of the Jews, and to all the nation, which read as follows:

“King Antiochus sends greetings to Simon, the high priest and ethnarch, and to the Jewish nation […] I authorize you to coin your own money, as legal tender in your country. Jerusalem and its sanctuary shall be free. All the weapons you have prepared and all the strongholds you have built and now occupy shall remain in your possession. All debts, present or future, due to the royal treasury shall be canceled for you, now and for all time. When we establish our kingdom, we will greatly honor you and your nation and the temple, so that your glory will be manifest in all the earth.”

Simon was a wise and beneficent ruler, chosen by an assembly of the people to be their “leader and high priest forever, until a trustworthy prophet should arise”. He conquered additional cities in the Land of Israel such as Gezer and Jaffa, and even succeeded in taking over the Acra – the fortress of Greeks and Hellenized Jews that had remained a thorn in the side of residents of Jerusalem for so long.

Six years passed in relative quiet since that happy day of independence, until family strife encouraged by the Seleucids brought about tragedy and betrayal. Simon’s father-in-law, Ptolemy son of Abubus, who received control of the city of Jericho and its surroundings while maintaining secret relations with the “current” Antiochus (VII), invited Simon and his sons to a feast at his home, where they were cruelly murdered, as Ptolemy hoped to gain the throne of Judea for himself.

Unfortunately for him, one of Simon’s sons – John Hyrcanus – didn’t attend that bloody feast, surviving his father and becoming the Prince and High Priest in his stead.


Season Two – The Bloody Rule of the First Kings

During the reign of John Hyrcanus, Mattathias’ grandson, the internal rift between the different religious factions deepened. Hyrcanus had begun his rule like his father and uncles before him – as a religious leader and priest ruling by virtue of broad public support. But a number of choices he made and disputes regarding his position (can a High Priest be a military leader engaged in conquest and killing?) pushed his form of rule towards that of an absolute monarchy relying on force-of-arms, little different than what could be seen in the surrounding Hellenistic monarchies. His successors would continue to enhance this trend. Greek culture began to become dominant in the institutions and customs of the ruling class. John (Yochanan) was the first to take a Greek name – Hyrcanus – and after him, this practically became the standard.

Hyrcanus ruled Judea for 31 years, the first Hasmonean ruler to die of natural causes. Before his death, he sought to hand over rule to his wife. But his son, Judah Aristobulus I didn’t like the idea, and when his father died, he simply imprisoned his mother and most of his brothers and declared himself King.

Hasmonean coins. The power to mint coins was an important marker of economic and political independence

The rule of the first King in Judea since the Biblical era was not a model of benevolent government, nor did it leave a significant mark on history. But Aristobulus I did apparently make at least one good decision: He married a woman named Salome (Shlomtziyon) Alexandra. She was the sister of Simon Ben Shetach – one of the greatest of the Pharisees and the president of the Sanhedrin – but she would yet stand out in her own right.

Aristobulus died from an illness just one year after coming to power. Salome Alexandra freed his imprisoned brothers (his mother died in jail), and married the oldest of them, who was still younger than her – Alexander Jannaeus.

Alexander Jannaeus was a king from the very first, with all that entails. He set out on extensive campaigns of conquest and vastly increased the size of his kingdom, taking over the Hellenistic coastal cities, and conquering Gaza and large swathes of the east bank of the Jordan River.

Map of the Land of Israel and the Hasmonean Kingdom following the conquests of Alexander Jannaeus. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel, courtesy of Amir Kahanovitz

According to most testimonies, Jannaeus was a cruel and tyrannical ruler who did not hesitate to use foreign mercenaries to massacre his opponents, of which there were many. He did not heed the mood of the people, and at least two significant rebellions occurred during his reign. During one of these, it is said that over 800 rebels were hung on the city walls, as Jannaeus held a vulgar banquet in front of them. He even wanted to execute his brother-in-law, a leader of the Pharisees, but Salome Alexandra managed to hide her sibling and save his life.

After less than thirty years on the throne, Alexander Jannaeus died in a manner similar to his namesake – from a disease he was stricken with during one of his campaigns. He was succeeded, finally, by a woman. His wife.


Season Three – The Days of the Good Queen Salome

Salome Alexandra was considered by many to be the best monarch of the bunch, certainly when it came to internal affairs. She brought the people, who were largely affiliated with the Pharisee party, back on her side, and her rule excelled in its almost unprecedented economic and political stability.

In her day, for the first time since Judah the Maccabee renewed the rituals of the Temple, the leadership was split up – Salome Alexandra ruled as Queen, but she granted the title of High Priest to her eldest son – Hyrcanus II.

Her second son, Aristobulus II, refused to reconcile with his mother’s reign and his brother’s priesthood. At first, he sufficed with leading the military elite, which set out on a number of campaigns in the name of his mother the Queen, but at the end of her life, when it was clear she was dying and unable to fully manage the kingdom, he gathered a loyal army around him, took control of many fortresses, and declared himself King.

Queen Salome Alexandra (Shlomtziyon), by Guy Bartholomew. Rome, 1751.

The figure of Salome Alexandra, and the fact that she was unable to quell the hostility between her two sons, provided historian Flavius Josephus with the opportunity to take a swipe at all women:

“A woman she was who showed no signs of the weakness of her sex […] and demonstrated by her doings at once, that her mind was fit for action, and that sometimes men themselves show the little understanding they have by the frequent mistakes they make in point of government; for she always preferred the present to futurity, and preferred the power of an imperious dominion above all things, and in comparison of that had no regard to what was good, or what was right. However, she brought the affairs of her house to such an unfortunate condition, that she was the occasion of the taking away that authority from it, and that in no long time afterward, which she had obtained by a vast number of hazards and misfortunes, and this out of a desire of what does not belong to a woman, and all by a compliance in her sentiments with those that bare ill-will to their family, and by leaving the administration destitute of a proper support of great men; and, indeed, her management during her administration while she was alive, was such as filled the palace after her death with calamities and disturbance.”

But even he could not help but admit:

“However […] she preserved the nation in peace. And this is the conclusion of the affairs of, Alexandra.”

Salome Alexandra died at the age of 73, after ruling Judea for 9 years.


Season Four – Brothers at War

Hyrcanus the High Priest, also known as Hyrcanus II, who Josephus (and not only him), described as “weak minded”, didn’t want to fight his brother at first. His mother left Aristobulus’ wife and sons with Hyrcanus to serve as a bargaining chip in the fight for the throne, but he chose not to use them and arrived at an agreement with Aristobulus – he would continue to serve as High Priest and Aristobulus would be King.

A return to sanity, mutual respect between brothers and good old-fashioned family values? Well, not quite.

Over time, Hyrcanus began to develop close ties with a fellow named Antipater the Idumaean. Antipater’s son would become one of the era’s most famous historic figures, but we’ll get to him in a bit. Antipater succeeded in convincing Hyrcanus not to give up the throne, and with the help of the King of the Nabateans, they set out to fight Aristobulus in Jerusalem. The war that broke out between the two brothers was bitter and cruel and was accompanied by the looting of everything dear and holy to the earlier Hasmoneans – by both of the warring sides. Now they didn’t even need a wicked Antiochus to desecrate the Temple and kill priests and sages – they did it themselves.

While this was going on, the Roman general Pompey strolled into town, carrying orders to expand Rome’s territories in the East. Throughout the Hasmonean Kingdom’s history, the Romans had cast a long shadow from the West but had refrained from intervening in Judea’s internal affairs, as its rulers were wise enough to repeatedly sign peace treaties with it.

This was about to change. Both Hyrcanus and Aristobulus now expected Pompey to judge which of the two was more deserving of ruling Judea. They travelled to see him in Damascus, as did a delegation of the Judean people, who came to ask the Roman general take down the entire Hasmonean family – they’d had enough power struggles and corruption.

Was this simple naivete or just a clumsy attempt at political maneuvering?

Either way, Pompey’s response was one of the greatest historical demonstrations of the idiom: “When two are fighting, the third wins”. He quickly seized the opportunity to take over the Judean kingdom himself. He went up to Jerusalem, besieged it, and after just three months and 12,000 dead Jews, he entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Aristobulus II was imprisoned and Hyrcanus II was declared an “Ethnarch” a pathetic puppet ruler on behalf of Rome.

The year was 63 BCE. The Hasmonean Kingdom, the only example of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel since the biblical kingdoms (and for the next 2,000 years), had lost its independence.


Season Five – The Last Hasmonean Queen

It was the end of the Hasmonean Kingdom, but not the end of the dynasty. Like the final season of a tired drama series full of violence and intrigue that refuses to end – the sons and daughters of the Hasmonean family stuck around, continuing to play inseparable roles in the government of the Roman client state.

Meantime, the effective ruler was Antipater – the man who incited Hyrcanus II to go to war for the throne in the first place. Antipater appointed his son, one Herod, as governor of the Galilee. Hyrcanus II and Herod were sworn enemies who didn’t miss an opportunity to humiliate or harm one another. This toxic relationship reached its peak with the poisoning of Antipater by Hyrcanus’ people. Antipater died and in order to “compensate” Herod, Hyrcanus gave him his granddaughter (also Aristobulus’ granddaughter due to marriage within the family) – Miriam the Hasmonean – as a wife.

Miriam, or Mariamne, was apparently a very impressive woman. Josephus described her thus:

“a woman of an excellent character, both for chastity and greatness of soul […] yet had she all that can be said in the beauty of her body, and her majestic appearance in conversation”

At the end of an exhaustingly long era of battles and intrigue, Herod became King of Judea under the Romans. Miriam his wife, who could be Queen herself by right due to her lineage, became the partner of one of the most notorious Jewish rulers in a court full of discord.

Herod is probably the most famous king of this era of Jewish history, but his rule, no matter how glamorous, was subordinate to the central government in Rome and is not considered part of the Hasmonean dynasty. To the contrary, he feared the legacy of the Hasmonean kings, and in order to reduce their influence and reputation, he even slashed Hyrcanus’ ears to make him unfit for the priesthood and executed most of what was left of the royal family, including the mother and brother of his wife Miriam.

His relationship with Miriam, his Hasmonean queen, was a roller coaster of almost mad passion interwoven with mutual accusations – she for his murder of her family, he for her disloyalty.

In the end, he sentenced her to death himself.

“…she went to her death with an unshaken firmness of mind […] and thereby evidently discovered the nobility of her descent to the spectators, even in the last moments of her life.”

Thus did Josephus describe the last moments of the last Hasmonean queen in his classic work, “Antiquities of the Jews”, just a few years after her family’s kingdom had lost its independence, and less than a hundred years before the complete destruction of Judea and the Temple itself.

Mariamne Leaving the Judgment Seat of Herod, by John William Waterhouse

The Hasmonean Kingdom was but a brief flash of Jewish independence in a torn and bloodied land dominated for millennia by empires, kingdoms, and other polities. A land the Jewish People never left and never ceased to dream of. It began with a great hope – the realization of the vision of five faithful brothers who worked together for decades and gave their lives to see it through. It was a kingdom full of Jewish pride which served as a testament to the power of the spirit and a shared fate. Yet it succumbed, soaked in blood, to its own failings and self-destructive acts. The story of the Hasmonean Kingdom offers a historical lesson on everything that can go wrong when a government is tainted with corruption and reliant solely on force.