During the conflict known as the Sinai Campaign, the State of Israel conquered the Gaza Strip. Military documents and rare color photographs reveal what this brief period of Israeli control of Gaza looked like - back in 1956
“Life in the city is very tumultuous. The streets are full of people, most of the stores are open. Lively commerce is taking place in the markets. The appearance of the residents is happier and seems to have reconciled itself with the occupation. They try to come talk with the Israeli soldiers and civilians. In the refugee camps, Israeli citizens are received with commotion and are immediately surrounded by masses of children and adults. The faces of the refugees have a very kind appearance. The camps excel in their cleanliness. The elderly among the refugees are interested in the wellbeing of their friends [across the border].”
(Report in the Davar newspaper, November 29, 1956, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel)
“Tonight our forces will break into the Gaza Strip.” This was the news given to IDF soldiers on November 1, 1956. After almost a decade of hostile activity from the Strip which led to the deaths of hundreds of Israelis, Israel was now taking the initiative. The Sinai Campaign, or “Operation Kadesh” as it is sometimes called, was a war initiated by Israel in the face of increasing cross-border terrorist actions by Palestinian groups known as the fedayeen. Once and for all, Israel hoped to put an end to the threat posed to the Israeli communities along the Gaza border. During the war, Israel succeeded – with French and British support – in taking over enormous tracts of land, including the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.
The IDF occupied Gaza relatively easily, and the Strip, then controlled by Egypt, capitulated within three days.
Life in Gaza City in those days was beautifully documented in a series of rare color photographs taken by American Jewish photographer and journalist Moshe (Marlin) Levin, who documented daily life in the city under Israeli military rule.
The truth, which the State of Israel did not know back in November 1956, was that it would only control the Gaza Strip for a brief period. Israel’s military successes and territorial gains created a sense of euphoria in the country, and the occupation of the region was referred to as the “liberation of Gaza” – hinting that there was little intent to give up the newly-conquered territory. It’s worth remembering that there had been a long-standing Jewish presence in the Gaza Strip which only ended in the 1929 riots, such that the conquering of Gaza was seen by many as a return to a part of the ancient Jewish homeland, rather than an occupation of a foreign territory.
Upon occupying the Strip, Israel imposed military rule and quickly began taking practical steps to establish Israeli control.
This can be seen in a series of orders which established martial law over the territory: the city’s judicial and administrative powers were transferred to the army.
Israeli currency became legal tender in the Strip.
Steps were also taken to restore “routine” to the occupied territory. Thus, alongside a curfew imposed on residents of Gaza during the night hours, an order was issued to open the stores in the daytime to allow continued trade.
And this is a rare picture of the home of the military governor in Gaza, complete with an Israeli flag.
Today we know that the period of Israeli control of Gaza in 1956 was very temporary. Israel quickly discovered that its partners in the Sinai Campaign – Britain and France – were no longer among the world’s true superpowers. Pressure from the USSR and especially the United States, was placed on Israel to withdraw its forces. On March 8, 1957, just four months after Gaza capitulated, IDF forces left the Strip in a long column of armored vehicles, and control was returned to Egypt.
Until the next war.
Every Hostage Has a Story: A New Exhibit at the National Library of Israel
We at the NLI felt we needed to help people around the world realize that the hostages held in Gaza are human beings, not just numbers and faces on a poster. We wanted to illustrate how there is an entire life behind each of these faces, each of these men, women and children. To do this, we decided to make use of the books that fill our library...
*Some of the hostages mentioned and seen in this article have by now returned to their families. Far too many remain in Gaza. We await their return.
Is he behind the door?
Is he under the stairs?
Is he under the bed?
Thousands of parents in Israel and around the world read the words of this classic children’s book night after night as they hold their sons and daughters close in a warm, safe bed.
Today, two Hebrew copies of “Where’s Spot” (Eifo Pinuki?) by Eric Hill wait on two tiny chairs which have been set aside for Yuli and Emma Kunio, twin sisters who are only 3 years old. The questions that appear throughout the book are now given heartbreaking significance.
Since October 7, we have all been overwhelmed with sadness and perhaps a sense of helplessness in the face of the unimaginable tragedy that has befallen so many families.
Yuli and Emma are among the 239 people being held in Gaza.
Like everyone else, we felt the need to do something. Something that could help people realize that these are human beings, not just numbers and faces on a poster. These are real people, with their own loves, hobbies and hopes for the future.
We wanted to illustrate how there is an entire life behind each of these faces, each of these men, women and children. To do this, we decided to make use of the books that fill our library.
This exhibit is called “Each Hostage Has a Story”. Many dozens of black chairs, far too many, have been placed in the middle of our new reading hall. Each chair has a picture of one of the hostages placed on it. Beside these black chairs are a number of smaller, colorful chairs for kindergarteners and young schoolchildren. There is also one baby chair, as difficult as this is to imagine.
Each chair also has a book placed on it that we have chosen specifically for each hostage. The books await their return.
Each book contains a personal library card that we’ve prepared, each one marked with a return date – NOW.
We wanted to illustrate the unimaginable number of people who have been abducted from their homes, while at the same time allowing for a personal look at each and every one of them, to remind us that they all have an unfinished story.
Thanks to relatives who have shared stories of their loved ones, we were able to learn a little bit about each of the hostages. Based on this we chose a book for each person that we thought would help others get to know them better and understand who they are. Secretly, we found ourselves wondering: Will they like the books we chose? Do our choices do them kindness and justice? Do they truly present them as they are and as they would like?
Elyakim Livman, 24 years old, can’t bear to see people picking on those weaker than themselves. His family nicknamed him “Robin Hood”. We’ve placed a copy of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” on his chair.
Liat Beinin Atzili, 49 years old, recently completed a course for tour guides at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. We’ve placed the book “Our Holocaust” by Amir Gutfreund on her chair.
We placed a copy of the book “Dad’s Building A Cake” on the chair reserved for 35-year-old Sagui Dekel Chen, who builds toys for his children.
79-year-old Channah Peri loves to spend time tending to her garden. We’ve placed the book “My Wild Garden: Notes From a Writer’s Eden” by Meir Shalev on her chair.
We put a copy of “4X4” on Alex Lobanov’s chair, since he enjoys going on Jeep tours.
We chose the book “The Kiss That Got Lost” for 3-year-old Avigail Idan, who is likely missing the hugs and kisses of her parents Smadar and Roy, who did not survive the attack by Hamas.
Yuval Brodutch, 8 years old, enjoys playing Xbox games, so we put a copy of “The Rescue”, from the Minecraft series, on his chair.
Doron Steinbrecher is a veterinarian nurse. We decided to lay the book “Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds” on her chair. The book tells the true story of a captive lioness who was released into the wild.
We chose the book “The Art of Loving” for 27-year-old Inbar Haiman, after her partner Noam Alon told us they were reading it together. They’re still in the middle of the book and he awaits her return so that they can finish it together.
Ori Danino only recently proposed to his girlfriend, so we’ve placed a book dedicated to Israeli wedding invitations on his chair.
Moran Yanai was able to realize her dream of opening up her own jewelry stand at the party held in Re’im, and so we placed a catalog of Israeli jewelry on her chair.
Ohad Mundar recently marked his 9th birthday in captivity. We placed a book belonging to Galia Ron-Feder-Amit’s “Time Tunnel” series, popular with Israeli children his age, on his chair. The book’s title – “Black Sabbath” – has now become imbued with tragic, heartbreaking meaning.
For little Kfir Bibas, only 9 months old, we chose the Israeli children’s classic “Where is Pluto?” by Leah Goldberg. Towards the end of the book, there is a line that many Israeli parents know by heart: “You’ve returned home, what joy!”
These are just a handful of examples. Hundreds of other chairs and pictures of hostages fill the hall, each of them representing an entire life. Many of them carry books that we chose because their titles suddenly received even greater meaning: “Run, Boy, Run”, “The Life Before Us”, “Great Expectations”, “Who Will Comfort Toffle?”
On a personal note, I have to admit that the issue of the hostages is a very difficult one for me. I couldn’t bear to think about the people who were kidnapped and the terrible suffering of the families. I had trouble reading the stories about them and looking at their photographs. The pain was unbearable. And then I found myself reading about them day and night, about what happened to them on that day and mostly – who they are, what they like to do and the people they love and who love them. Now each name and picture is a name and picture that I have come to know and love. As a consequence, the pain of their absence has also grown and so has the great hope to see them here again.
This story must have a happy ending.
The exhibit “Every Hostage Has a Story” is now on display in the reading hall (floors -1 and -2) of the National Library of Israel
Dori Gani , a reference librarian at the NLI, is the curator of the exhibit
Forced to Leave His Home in Nir Am as a 3-Year-Old, and Again at Age 78
In 1948, 3-year-old Yigal Cohen was smuggled out of Kibbutz Nir Am at the outbreak of the War of Independence. He later returned to the kibbutz, grew up, and started a family. 75 years later, on October 7, the kibbutz was attacked again. Residents evacuated, among them 78-year-old Yigal, who was doing this for the second time in his life...
Yigal Cohen from Kibbutz Nir Am, at the age of 78 (left), and at the age of 3 when he was evacuated to Tel Aviv during the War of Independence (right) \. From a private album.
When 78-year-old Yigal Cohen was evacuated from Kibbutz Nir Am to Tel Aviv, he experienced some déjà vu, a flashback to when he was 3 years old: The sirens warning of incoming missiles sounded exactly like noises that had terrified him as a toddler during the War of Independence, 75 years earlier. In his home in Nir Am, the alert that signals incoming rockets is different these days. On Yigal’s kibbutz and in other communities close to the Gaza border, there are no sirens. Instead, a recording of the Hebrew words tseva adom (color red/code red) is played over loudspeakers. Whenever Yigal hears the undulating wail of the sirens in Tel Aviv, he is flooded with childhood memories.
Kibbutz Nir Am was founded in 1943 by members of the Gordonia youth movement from Bessarabia (present day Moldova). It played a leading role in the Jewish settlement of the southern Negev region. The water source found on the kibbutz grounds two years later had a significant impact on the decision to include the Negev region as part of the Jewish state in the United Nations’ 1947 partition plan. This reservoir also made it possible for 11 different settlements (“The 11 Points”, including some of the first Gaza border region communities) to be established in the Negev in 1946.
Yigal Cohen is a filmmaker who taught at Sapir College, as well as a journalist and member of the Tel Aviv Journalists’ Association. Today, he serves as the director of the Nir Am Archive. He was born on the kibbutz in the year 1945 to parents who had helped found it. When the War of Independence broke out, the kibbutz had some defensive positions but no real shelters. During the 1948 battles, when the men went out to fight and defend the community, the women and children crowded inside a makeshift shelter covered with sandbags. For five long days, they remained there, until the women and children could be evacuated to Tel Aviv. The situation was so dangerous that the trucks that transported them drove with their headlights off when passing through areas teeming with hostile infiltrators from Gaza. As Cohen tells it, the children were given sleeping pills so as not to accidentally alert the enemy to the convoy’s presence.
Yigal will never forget the fear, panic, and helplessness he felt as a 3-year-old experiencing war: “The shelling and bombing tore through the sandbags, which made the sand pour all over us. It was unbearably crowded and suffocating.” Back then, 75 years ago, the members of Kibbutz Nir Am spent almost a year in an empty school on 12 Zamenhof Street in Tel Aviv, waiting to return to their beloved home. This was finally made possible in April 1949.
Yigal has a photograph documenting the special moment when a truck returned the children to the kibbutz. He remembers how, as a young boy who had gotten used to his new life in Tel Aviv, he refused to get off the truck.
Yigal grew up in the collective children’s home, as was the common practice in the kibbutzim in those days. He has fond memories of happy years spent there, despite the close proximity to the border and the infiltrations from Gaza into the area which occurred from time to time.
In his lifetime, Yigal Cohen witnessed or took part in each and every one of Israel’s wars, and he carries scars and memories from all of them:
By the time of the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the kibbutz had a proper bomb shelter, where Yigal spent much of the war. In 1967, he completed his compulsory military service, just a month before the Six-Day War broke out. He had even set a date for his wedding to his beloved Adi, but the young couple was forced to delay the ceremony, as Yigal immediately enlisted for reserve duty.
During that war, the kibbutz was struck by a two-fold disaster: Amos Shachar (Schwartz), a son of the kibbutz, was killed in battle. 30 days later, his 17-year-old brother Oded was driving a tractor that rode over a landmine in the kibbutz’s farmlands, and he was killed as well. As it turned out, Gaza militants who fled towards Hebron during the war had buried quite a few landmines in the fields of the border communities, and soldiers from the Military Engineering Corps were tasked with neutralizing them throughout the entire area for a long time after.
Yigal spent the war as a reservist patrolling the border. A few weeks later than originally planned, he married the woman who remains his wife to this day, Adi Cohen Nitzani, in her home kibbutz of Ginosar.
By the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Yigal had two young children and stayed back to protect his home. Later that same year, he served in reserve duty patrolling the border with Gaza. No one from Kibbutz Nir Am fell in battle, and the concerns of all the kibbutz members were focused on one reservist soldier who was critically wounded. This man, Amnon Abramovich, had grown up with Yigal and had played soccer with him as a boy on the grassy lawns of the small kibbutz. According to Yigal, he had been quite a good player and a particularly mischievous little boy. He sustained burns on 95% of his body when his tank was hit by enemy fire. Amnon would survive his injuries and go on to become one of Israel’s leading journalists and political commentators. Yigal, along with the other members of the kibbutz, supported Abramovich and monitored his long recovery.
As Yigal tells it, Nir Am is a relatively small, intimate, and warm kibbutz. Over the years, it has grown and flourished. In 2002, it was privatized and in recent years, the kibbutz community has taken in new families. But living so close to the border taught Yigal and many of the kibbutz’s veteran members to be cautious. “They told us that everything is fine, not to worry, that there’s an electronic fence. But we were never calm, we were alert. We could see their movements. From the kibbutz fence you can really see everything.”
But despite his anger and disappointment, Yigal remains optimistic. “Nir Am is my home. The community will change, of course, but it’s not only the community. The entire country will change. Of that, I’m sure.”
Yigal has lost many friends from communities in the Western Negev. In recent days and weeks, he has been traveling around the country, going from funeral to funeral, comforting mourner after mourner. The two regional councils that were hit hardest by the brutal and merciless attacks on October 7, Sha’ar HaNegev and Eshkol, are a cluster of small, family-based communities where everyone knows each other. Although the people of Nir Am largely survived the events of October 7, Yigal had close, personal relationships with dozens of people from neighboring communities who were murdered on that awful day, and he is mourning for them and for his abandoned home that was turned into a military base within days.
75 years separate 3-year-old Yigal, whose eyes and mouth were filled with sand from burst sandbags torn apart during the War of Independence, and 78-year-old Yigal, who awoke to catastrophe on the morning of October 7, 2023. “On Saturday morning, when the rocket alerts began to sound, I didn’t feel like going into the safe room. I’m used to it. My wife insisted we go inside. When we began hearing gunshots approaching, I was sure it was IDF gunfire. Our power went out pretty quickly, we had no internet or TV, and we had no idea what was going on outside. It was only once we spoke on the phone with our children who don’t live on the kibbutz that we began to understand the scale of the horrors happening around us. It was terrifying.”
“We were saved by a miracle. I still can’t digest the magnitude of the miracle that happened here. Thanks to the kibbutz’s security coordinator Inbal Lieberman, and all the brave members of the civilian security team, Kibbutz Nir Am was almost completely unharmed.”
Yigal also has some positive memories from his time as a refugee in Tel Aviv: He remembers the excellent ice cream shop; “Whitman,” where his mother took him to eat on the busy street; and the movies they went to see in the theater – things he had never experienced on the kibbutz.
Will the current ongoing evacuation be only a temporary experience for this new generation of displaced Nir Am children? Will they return to build an even stronger community after this is all over? What memories will remain with them from this period?
This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”
To the Last Furrow: The Blood, Sweat and Tears of Nahal Oz
The morning of Simchat Torah 2023 was supposed to be a day of celebration - marking 70 years of Kibbutz Nahal Oz. But with chilling similarity to another event that took place just three years after Nahal Oz was founded, this day ended entirely differently – in unimaginable tragedy. Is this what life is like for those whose homes are the border itself?
A child in Nahal Oz, 1957. The photo is from the Kibbut Nahal Oz Archive and is accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the archive, the Ministry of Heritage and the NLI
At first, there was no fence – just fields. And young men and women whose hearts were full of faith, courage, and love of the land they worked.
Kibbutz Nahal Oz began life as the first agricultural settlement of the IDF’s Nahal program. This program combined military service with community-building and agriculture. Members of the founding core group arrived with the declared intention of settling the border area. They were young soldiers (some very young) who had been given agricultural training in order to fulfill the role of settling and protecting the country. The furrows of their fields were the border, and they – its guards.
They ploughed and sowed and planted and built and established a home on the lands of the old Kibbutz of Be’erot Yizthak, whose members had decided to move north after a heroic battle during the 1948 War of Independence. “Nahlai’m Aleph – Opposite Gaza” is how they were called in the first two years, a kind of declaration of awareness of what they faced, what they could see from their windows.
In the heavy shadow of the terrible massacre of Simchat Torah 2023, we spoke with Yankel’e Cohen, one of the two members of the original settlement group who are still members of the kibbutz. He lived there for 70 years, among the greening fields and opposite the Gazan neighborhood of Shejaiya in the distance. He told of an idealistic group which succeeded – despite and perhaps even thanks to the security tensions – in founding a family community. “The togetherness,” he said, “was always stronger than elsewhere. The gathering of welcoming people who were much less individualistic.”
They paid in blood almost from the first for this effort. Shortly after celebrating the founding of the settlement in 1953, Yaakov “Tommy” Tuchman was murdered. After the murder, kibbutz members continued to suffer from infiltrations by the fedayeen, mines laid in the area, and thefts from the fields. The peak came in 1956, with the tragic murder of Ro’i Rothberg.
Ro’i Rothberg was the model Nahal soldier – a good-looking Israeli, an educated man who didn’t neglect his physical health, a military officer and farmer who didn’t let the hard work coarsen his gentle conduct, and above all – a beloved friend who refused to let the hard life on the border affect his natural happiness and sharp wit.
He volunteered to serve in the army despite being younger than the official draft age, and registered into the officer’s course as soon as he could. At age 21 he was in charge of regional security, married to beautiful Amira, and father of a baby boy – Boaz.
That spring morning when his life was taken, kibbutz members were excitedly preparing for a major event: a “quadruple wedding” for four young couples from the community. A stage was strewn with flowers and twigs, some of the food was already being prepared, and guests had even started to arrive – including Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan and reporters from the IDF magazine BaMahaneh, who meant to document the celebration.
Earlier that morning, there were reports of fedayeen infiltrators raiding the fields for the umpteenth time. Ro’i set out on his beloved horse to scare them off. It was something he did every day. But this time ended differently. He ran into an ambush and was cruelly murdered. His body was mutilated and dragged beyond the last furrow – and into the Gaza Strip.
It was only after threats were issued by the security establishment and the UN intervened that his body was returned through the fields he defended.
Instead of dancing at the weddings (which still took place, though they tearfully moved to another location), the kibbutz members dug the first grave on their land.
Moshe Dayan stayed for the funeral of the young regional security coordinator, who deeply impressed him in their short meeting a day before. The IDF Chief of Staff gave a famous eulogy which over the years has been interpreted politically in complex ways.
“Have we forgotten that this group of young people dwelling at Nahal Oz is bearing the heavy gates of Gaza on its shoulders?” he asked clearly above the fresh grave, as though he knew how heavy those gates would be. How similar they could be to the gates of Hell itself.
“How do you continue to live in such a place, for so many years?” we asked Yankel’e. “A great deal of Zionism. And faith,” he answered without hesitating. Matters of the spirit.
When Gaza was occupied in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the Egyptians withdrew from that last furrow. But there was no real quiet.
Less than a year after Ro’i’s murder, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion himself arrived along with Dayan to visit Nahal Oz. They sat with the kibbutz members in the local social club and explained their approach – why and how Gaza was being returned to Egyptian hands. Don’t worry, they tried to tell the kibbutz members – it will be quiet now. The UN will keep the peace.
Ben-Gurion (whose view of the UN was well-known even then) respected the members of the “security settlements”, as they were sometimes called, often mentioning his belief that without them “security will not be established in the country.” He came to promise them that he truly believed quiet would come, but when he left that meeting in the clubhouse, he left men and women behind who were frustrated and fearful.
Thus far, a well-known story.
Yankel’e told us what happened afterwards: Ben-Gurion left, but Moshe Dayan stayed as the members spoke more freely of their fears. The army chief wasn’t impressed. To the contrary, he railed against the “complaints”, reminded them of the compensation they’d receive if something happened and contemptuously added – those who don’t like it, can go back to Ramat Hasharon [a safer town in central Israel].
The offended members wrote to Ben-Gurion, and he – who always respected deeds more than words – forced Dayan to return to Nahal Oz and apologize to the members he considered to be the shield of the state.
Years passed. Gaza was conquered in 1967, before Israel again withdrew decades later, in 2005. The “Um Shmum”, as Ben-Gurion called the UN, was very limited in its ability to keep the peace. The fields flowered, and burned from time-to-time following terrorist actions or shelling. Each time they were sown anew. New graves filled the small cemetery. The furrows continued to be carefully cultivated but were far from sufficing as a barrier to the repeated attacks out of Gaza. A fence was built, and then another one, and then another one deep underground.
But like that furrow in 1956, the fence was also crossed by the successors of the fedayeen on the cursed Shabbat of October 7, 2023.
In a chilling repeat of that day in 1956, the Saturday morning in October of 2023, the day of Simchat Torah, was supposed to be one of excited preparations for a major event – the celebration of 70 years since Nahal Oz’s founding.
In congratulations recorded in advance for the celebrations, some of those visiting wished “that we should hear from you and about you not just when there’s sad and scary news, but precisely when there’s good, of which you have so much.”
But there were no celebrations. On the Saturday morning of October 7, 2023, bloodthirsty terrorists broke into Kibbutz Nahal Oz and massacred its members, murdering whole families and taking others hostage. There was hardly a home that was unaffected.
“Ro’i,” Moshe Dayan said at that eulogy in 1956, “who left Tel Aviv to build his home at the gates of Gaza to be a wall for us was blinded by the light in his heart and he did not see the flash of the sword. The yearning for peace deafened his ears and he did not hear the voice of murder waiting in ambush. The gates of Gaza weighed too heavily on his shoulders and overcame him.”
“But we will rise,” Yankel’e says with chilling simplicity, 67 years later, as we hear of the kibbutz dairy resuming its work. “We have no other way.”
Even if the gates of Gaza are heavy, Nahal Oz – its spirit and its people – stand defiant and unconquered.
Many thanks to Yankel’e Cohen, a member of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, for helping in the preparation of this article.
Pictures appearing in the article are held at the Nahal Oz Archive and are now digitally available thanks to the collaboration of the archive, the Ministry of Heritage, the Landmarks Program, and the National Library of Israel
This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”