Israeli and Egyptian Soldiers in a 1948 Group Photo: The Story Behind a Picture

How an Israeli soldier risked his life to retrieve the bodies of fallen comrades from behind enemy lines, and the incredible photos that captured an unlikely encounter

Yaakov Yaniv in the center of the picture taken during the encounter between the Israeli and Egyptian soldiers, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The story of Operation Yekev (“Winery” in Hebrew) begins in October 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence; when an entire brigade comprising three battalions – the Beit Horon Battalion, the Moriah Battalion, and the 64th Battalion – was sent on a mission to conquer the town of Beit Jala, which lies south of Jerusalem and north-west of Bethlehem. The commander of the operation was Moshe Dayan.

The Beit Horon Battalion managed to get past the railway tracks, which served as the separation line between Israeli and Egyptian positions (near what is known today as Ein Yael and Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo). The 64th Battalion launched an attack on the village of al-Walaja. Our story’s hero, Yaakov Yaniv (Novak), was a squad sergeant in this battalion. He was 20 years old at the time and had arrived from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to serve in the Haganah only a few months earlier. The 64th Battalion did not engage in battle in this case, but the force was exposed to friendly fire by a mortar unit. Fortunately, none of the battalion’s soldiers were hurt. The Moriah Battalion launched its own attack during the night but was unsuccessful in crossing the railway tracks and advancing towards the hill occupied by the Egyptians. A single Bren machine gun persistently shot at Moriah’s vanguard unit, preventing its advance. Operation Yekev was a harrowing military failure.

Late at night, the brigade’s three battalions were given the order to retreat. Six soldiers from the Beit Horon Battalion were killed in action. The battalion’s soldiers managed to retrieve four of the bodies, but two remained in the field.


The Bodies

A month and a half later, on December 3rd, 1948, Yaakov Yaniv and his men were manning a position on Malcha Hill overlooking the railway line below, and observing the nearby Egyptian force. Today, the homes of Jerusalem’s Malcha neighborhood fill the entire area that was then a bare hilltop adjacent to an Arab village.

A few Egyptian soldiers suddenly stepped out of their post and shouted to Yaniv and his men: “We have two bodies. If you want, come and take them.” Yaakov Yaniv heard this and was stunned. He and a few of his men headed down the hill and reached the British Mandate railway which ran from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, where the Egyptians waited for them. They agreed that Yaniv and a few of his men would go to the Egyptian post to retrieve the bodies while two Egyptian soldiers would remain at the bottom of the hill, in the custody of the other Israelis who would watch them until Yaniv and his men returned safely.


The Recovery

Yaakov Yaniv crossed the railroad and made his way to the Egyptian outpost on the mountain in front of him, carrying only his Kodak camera. A grove of trees covered the route up the mountain. Yaniv walked through the trees as one of the Egyptian soldiers followed him closely; he was a tall, thin soldier of Sudanese origin, armed with a Tommy gun. Yaniv would later learn that this was the machine gunner who had thwarted the Moriah Battalion’s attack. They proceeded to the Egyptian position known as “The White Trench”, an old Turkish fortification from the First World War, built as a defense against British attacks.

Who were the Egyptians who barricaded themselves there in 1948? These were units affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood organization. How did they get there? The Egyptian army had invaded Israel earlier in the year, heading for Tel Aviv, but they were stopped at Ashdod on the southern coast. From there some units headed east towards the Judean Mountains, eventually making their way to Jerusalem; the Muslim Brotherhood unit was among these.


Yaakov Yaniv in the center of the photo taken during the encounter between the Israeli and Egyptian soldiers, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

When he arrived at the trench, Yaakov Yaniv met the commander of the Egyptian force and was surprised to learn that he was in fact a local Palestinian Arab from the nearby village of Beit Safafa. They spoke in English and eventually, the Palestinian commander told him, “You can take the bodies,” gesturing toward the human forms sprawled on the ground a few dozen feet from where they stood. The sight of the completely exposed corpses was disturbing, but after taking a closer look Yaniv realized they had not been abused but were in dire condition as a result of the time that had passed since the soldiers were killed.

Yaniv sent for blankets and stretchers to carry the fallen soldiers’ bodies over to the Israeli side. Meanwhile, the Palestinian commander offered him a cup of tea, and they sat down to drink together. The commander told Yaniv he had led the force that attacked the Mekor Chaim neighborhood from Beit Safafa a few months earlier. Surprised, Yaniv told him that his commander, Danieli, a Palmach member who was born in Mekor Chaim, led the force that protected the neighborhood against the attacks.

Sitting in the Egyptian post, Yaniv was not afraid. He was treated decently, he said. After all, they had offered him tea, and  they were happy to drink along with him. Some might call it a miracle or perhaps just a moment of absurdity in the midst of the terrible battles of the War of Independence.

As they sat and drank, soldiers gathered around them, and when the stretcher and blankets arrived, the Palestinian commander stood up and said, “I’ll help you carry the stretcher.” He walked over and grabbed one end of the stretcher with both hands. Yaniv held it from the other end and together they walked down the hill towards the railroad. The second stretcher was carried down by other soldiers.


The Pictures

When they arrived at the waiting point with the bodies of the fallen soldiers, men from Yaniv’s unit had already arrived to receive the bodies. This was when Yaniv took out his Kodak camera, bought with his first salary when working at the Central Post Office on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv before the war. The moment was captured for posterity as soldiers from both armies posed for the photograph, enemies at war who were briefly partners in an operation to bring the bodies of IDF soldiers to burial in Israel – an operation in which all participants put their lives at risk.

After his return, Danieli, Yaakov Yaniv’s commander, confiscated the camera film and threatened Yaniv with a court martial. Danieli considered the operation initiated by his subordinate a grave violation of military procedure– though it had ended peacefully, Yaniv’s life and possibly the lives of his comrades had been endangered. Yaniv took on the operation alone, without asking anyone’s permission. Certainly, had he asked for it, he would never have been permitted to carry out such an operation in an Egyptian outpost in the middle of a war. To Yaniv’s surprise, the film was returned to him a few days later, and the court martial never materialized.

Right to left: The Egyptian force commander, Yaniv (the camera strap on his shoulder) and the Sudanese machine gunner. Sitting: A Haganah soldier, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Pardon

Years later, Yaniv asked Commander Danieli why he had not been put on trial at the time, and Danieli replied that the day after the incident, Moshe Dayan, the regional commander, arrived in the sector. Danieli told Dayan what happened, and the latter replied with a typical dismissive gesture and instructed Danieli to let the matter go. It seemed that to Dayan, Yaakov Yaniv’s heroic act outweighed the offense. When the film was returned to him, Yaniv hid it and had the pictures developed as soon as he could. He kept them with him ever since. One day, he received a phone call from military historian Dr. Nir Mann, who heard of Yaniv while conducting historical research on Operation Yekev. When they met, Mann saw the photos and suggested that Yaniv donate them to the National Library of Israel due to their great historical value.


The Fallen Soldiers

Many years had passed, but Yaakov Yaniv could not stop thinking about the soldiers whose bodies he brought to burial in Israel. He wished to know who they were. He began to investigate and search for answers but encountered many difficulties as he was not from the same battalion as the fallen and had very little information about them. He contacted the Department of Families and Commemoration at the Ministry of Defense and told them his story. The information he received included the names of the soldiers and some documents but it was only partially accurate. According to the ministry’s records, only one body was retrieved that day.

Finally, Yaniv decided to go to the cemetery himself and look for the graves. At the Military Cemetery on Mount Herzl, where the fallen soldiers’ graves are arranged by war and date, he searched for the graves with the names he received. He discovered that one of them was located at the top of the mountain and the other closer to the bottom. Both graves had the same date on them. Yaniv could not understand why two people who were killed in the same place, who served in the same unit and whose bodies were recovered together, by him, were buried in different places. He told the Ministry of Defense about this and asked that they be buried side by side; the Ministry officials promised this would be done.

Finally, Yaniv was able to discover the identities of the two fallen soldiers whose proper burial he had risked his life for: They were both Holocaust survivors who arrived in Israel shortly before being sent to the frontline. Neither had any known relatives anywhere in the world. They were the last survivors of their families.

Since then, every year, on the eve of every Israeli Memorial Day, Yaniv goes to the Military Cemetery on Mount Herzl and places flower wreaths on the two graves.


צבי קנר

Zvi Kenner was born in the city of Iasi in Romania. He worked as a carpenter and was waiting to immigrate to Israel when World War II broke out. He survived the war, unlike the rest of his family. In 1948, he arrived in Israel on an illegal immigration ship that was caught; he was detainedin Cyprus for a few months before enlisting in the Israeli army on August 8th, 1948. He was killed on October 20th, 1948 at the age of 21.



שמואל שימנסקי

Shmuel Szimanski, born in Poland, was a young tailor recruited to the Polish army. He later fought with the Russians, making it all the way to Berlin, receiving honors and medals for his service and courage. Before the war, he was a member of Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, and after the war, when he discovered that none of his relatives had survived, he again contacted members of Hashomer Hatzair and joined a kibbutz to which he immigrated on one of the last illegal immigration ships to arrive in Israel. He arrived in Israel in 1948, enlisted in the IDF, and was sent on Operation Yekev to join the battle against the Egyptians, during which he was killed at the age of 29.


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The Black Hebrew Exodus, 50 Years On

Rare images reveal the group's first days in the Promised Land

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

One day while working at a foundry in Chicago, the man who would become known as Ben Ammi Ben-Israel had a revelation.

“I realized that I was the Messiah,” Ben-Israel later recounted.

In 1967, hundreds of his followers sold all of their belongings and followed him to the Liberian jungle where they built a village for themselves, pursuing a process of spiritual purification after hundreds of years of slavery and racism.

Some ultimately went back to America, while others – largely inspired by the words uttered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just prior to his assassination – decided to journey on to their own Promised Land, the Land of Israel.

In December 1969, some three dozen members of the community, officially known as the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem and generally referred to as the Black Hebrews, completed their exodus, settling in the Negev Desert. Ben Ammi Ben-Israel stayed behind in Liberia to tie up some lose ends before coming with an additional group and joining his own family and the community in the small town of Dimona in March 1970.  According to Ben-Israel, once he came to Israel he received an additional name:  “Nasi Hashalom”, Hebrew for “The Prince of Peace”.

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

The rare photographs appearing here were taken in January 1970, just a few weeks after the community was established in Dimona, and prior to the arrival of the group’s charismatic leader. The images are part of the Dan Hadani Archive, from the National Library of Israel’s Pritzker Family National Photography Collection.

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

The Israeli authorities did not know how to handle the Prince of Peace and his followers, self-proclaimed descendants of the lost tribes of Israel who appeared to practice some form of Judaism, yet also had customs and a belief system all their own. In an unprecedented move, the government granted the African Hebrew Israelites tourist visas, yet also afforded them all of the benefits to which immigrants are entitled, including education, public housing, employment assistance and full medical coverage.

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

One early report tells of the curiosity and warmth exhibited by Dimona’s Indian and North African Jewish residents towards their new neighbors. According to another report about the Black Hebrews, “Anyone who comes in contact with them is full of praise: hard-working people, pleasant, put together, clean. Great citizens.”

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

Nonetheless, their arrival was also accompanied by significant suspicion and even antipathy, largely driven by their unusual origins and practices. When Meir Kahane moved to Israel in 1971, his first public appearance was in Dimona, where he accused the group of insulting the honor of the Jewish people. African Hebrew Israelites who came in smaller groups throughout the 1970s and 1980s were deported. Upon landing in the country in 1977, three community members even tore up their tickets and American passports in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent deportation. At one point, a high-ranking Egyptian official somewhat ironically offered to settle the African Hebrew Israelites in his country, then still officially at war with the Jewish state.

Nonetheless, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel had no intention of continuing his community’s exodus on to Egypt or anywhere else for that matter. He urged his flock to be patient. After enduring inner city Chicago and the jungles of Liberia, certainly a little perseverance could best the bureaucratic and cultural challenges they faced in Israel, as well.

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

Sure enough, in 1990, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of the Ultra-Orthodox Shas party established guidelines that would ultimately ensure that the vast majority of the community be allowed to stay in Israel permanently.

While Ben Ammi Ben-Israel passed away in 2014, his teachings live on in the “Village of Peace” urban kibbutz in Dimona, where most African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem still live. Over the years, the strictly vegan community has thrived and become increasingly integrated into Israeli society and culture. They have opened a number of successful vegan restaurants, as well as factories for both vegan foods and natural fiber clothing. Many serve in the IDF, wearing special boots made from synthetic materials so as not to violate their religious prohibition against wearing leather.

Most members of the community today were born in Israel, yet the influence of 1960s Black America lives on in the cadence of the English they speak, as well as in the music and dance for which they have become legendary. Community members twice represented Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest: 1999’s “Yom Huledet/Happy Birthday” by Eden, and 2006’s “Together We Are One” by Eddie Butler.

Though it took some time, it now seems hard to deny that the vision Ben Ammi Ben-Israel expressed in a newspaper interview shortly after arriving in Israel half a century ago has largely been fulfilled, “We only really want one thing: that you will understand that we love the Land, want to be good citizens, to be the friends of all people.”

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge


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The Story of the First Hebrew Animated Film

Even the creators of the short animated film “The Adventures of Gadi ben Susi” didn’t think it was any good

A young Yemenite-Jewish boy wanders the streets of Tel Aviv. He tries his hand at a string of jobs, but doesn’t last long at any of them. He looks for love and finds it, but only after many trials and tribulations, including floating above 1930s Tel Aviv while clutching hold of a cluster of balloons, for example. This is the basic plot of “The Adventures of Gadi ben Susi,” considered to be the first Hebrew animated film ever made.

The original Gadi ben Susi, you may recall, was one of the twelve spies Moses sent into the Land of Canaan ahead of the entry of the Israelites. He was a representative of the tribe of Manasseh, and this was the only time his name appeared in the Bible. Those familiar with the story will remember that, with the exception of Kalev ben Yefune and Joshua ben Nun, all the spies were considered sinners because they spoke critically of the land. This then is the possible allusion contained within the name of the star of our film. Was there any special intent in selecting this biblical name or was it just a random choice? We’ll let our readers decide.

Young Gadi, as noted, was apparently a newly-arrived immigrant who, based on his hair and clothes, was born in Yemen. According to the captions, his immigration to the Land of Israel transformed him into a new man and now, the time had come, after having studied Torah, for Gadi to find work. Setting out to roam the streets of little Tel Aviv, he hears a cry for help, but like Don Quixote, he misjudges the situation and ends up in trouble with the police. Next, he tries his hand at selling ice cream and roasted almonds, against a backdrop featuring iconic Tel Aviv buildings of the day, such as the famous Herzliya Gymnasia high school.

The iconic Herzliya Gymnasia high school building, as featured in the film

The style is entirely dream-like and surrealist: limbs can suddenly stretch to outrageous lengths, Gadi is swallowed up by an ice cream truck, and his future lover is able to save him from a deep well with the help of an especially flexible palm tree and, of course, the power of love. The plot is rather lacking and the characters are two-dimensional, but a twist lies in wait. We won’t give away the ending, however.

Gadi soars over Tel Aviv while clutching a bunch of balloons

A few technical details about the film: it is silent and contains no soundtrack whatsoever. The plot is advanced with the help of slides containing narrative text and dialogue.  The drawings are in black and white. It is eight minutes long and was produced in 1931. For the sake of comparison, we should bear in mind that four years earlier, another black and white animated film starring a famous mouse had captured the world’s imagination. Alas, this was not the fate of our Gadi, whose own creators would end up making fun of him.

The film was produced by the Agadati brothers, Baruch and Yitzhak, who were among the founders of the Hebrew film industry in Israel. They hired the talented poet Avigdor Hameiri to write whimsical rhymes for the project, and the artist and cartoonist Arye Navon, who was put in charge of animation. Much can be written about all of them, beginning with the fact that all three arrived in Mandatory Palestine on the famous ship Ruslan. However, we will focus here on the illustrator, whom we can safely call the first Hebrew animator in the Land of Israel.

Arye Navon, the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

Arye Navon was born in Ukraine and as mentioned, arrived in Palestine in 1919 with his family. He and two of his brothers, three out of a family of five siblings, became artists. Over the course of his long career, he drew caricatures for the Do’ar HaYom newspaper, as well as for Davar. In addition, he illustrated books by major authors and poets, painted portraits, designed scenery for the theater and created comic strips.

In his autobiography Bekav u-bekhtav (“In Line and Script”), published shortly before his death, Navon concisely described the process of the making of the animated film (he even mistakenly called the character “Yossi ben Gadi”): “For around ten days I sat in [Agadati’s] studio and drew many pictures. Agadati, together with his brother Yitzhak, photographed the drawings on the animation table, which was quite primitively constructed. The electric lamps that lit the illustrations were placed on top of a special structure. Yitzhak would climb to the top and adjust the light from there. Another problem was that the light attracted flies, which would land on the drawings. In the screen test, these photogenic flies looked like elephants . . . it was a pretty awful film. Walt Disney did it much better. At any rate, it was the first animated film in the country.”

Returning once again to our Gadi, this “pretty awful” film did not leave much of an impression on the Israeli film industry, and its single claim to fame is that it was indeed “the first.” It played for only a week before it disappeared into oblivion. Luckily, it can still be viewed today thanks to the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive.


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The Hebrew Women of His Majesty’s Armed Forces

During WWII, Hebrew women lined up to volunteer for the British Army. Posters from the period offer a fascinating glimpse of this unique chapter in Zionist history, as well as the history of feminism in Israel

"Join us, dear sister!" – A poster encouraging women to enlist in the British Army, the Shamir Brothers Collection at the National Library of Israel

Mess Halls: If you like order and cleanliness and are prepared for any job – choose this service and set the spirit of the soldiers, in both training and active duty.

The above quote is taken from a 1940s military volunteer form for Hebrew women. The style certainly appears outdated or even offensive by today’s standards, but this was how Jewish women in Mandatory Palestine were called upon to join the British Army. It wasn’t all about “order and cleanliness”, of course – thousands of women enlisted and served in a variety of combat support roles. Some were stationed in Israel while others were deployed to different bases in the Middle East and even Europe, where they served in the fields of medicine, munitions, transport and more.

Below is a Hebrew quote from Isaiah 52:1: “Put on thy beautiful garments”. The Shamir Brothers Collection at the National Library of Israel

Undoubtedly, the idea of Jewish women serving in the British army was considered unusual. The British themselves certainly weren’t thrilled about it and among the Yishuv (the Jewish community in the Land of Israel), many were also opposed.

Pictures and posters from this period (many of which can be found in the National Library collections) offer an interesting view of a highly important chapter in our history, and, some may argue, of the history of feminism in Israel as well.


“Announcing the recruitment of women for military service – Enlist!” The Shamir Brothers Collection at the National Library of Israel

In mid-1941, representatives of women’s organizations such as WIZO, the Council of Working Women (known today as NA’AMAT) and Hadassah, requested that the British Army open its women’s branch, the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), to Jewish volunteers from Mandatory Palestine.

The Yishuv considered itself part of the Allied struggle against the Nazis; from the beginning of the war, women were called to enlist alongside men and serve in the army, despite certain objections from religious parties.

The Jewish Agency joined the request put forth to the British and in October of 1941 permission to draft 5,000 women – 2,000 of them immediately – was granted.

“Sign up for the ATS and the WAFS [Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron]… at the Jewish Agency’s enlistment offices” The Shamir Brothers Collection at the National Library of Israel

In December of that year an official announcement was published. Numerous ads were posted in newspapers and on notice boards encouraging women to drop everything and volunteer. The Jewish Agency itself operated many of the enlistment centers and was at the forefront of this initiative. The following excerpt was published in Hebrew in the Davar daily:

Since the beginning of the war, the Hebrew woman has demanded her right to join the battle against the enemy. This demand has been accepted. Women must now fulfill their duty. Since the beginning of our resurrection in this land, women have stood side by side with men in building our country’s foundation. In every effort. Sacrifice and success were the lot of women just as they were the lot of men. Now women are allowed to contribute, in uniform, to the Yishuv’s war effort. The honor and privilege of volunteering in the army is now hers as well.


“You can shorten the road – To Victory…Join the ATS” The Shamir Brothers Collection at the National Library of Israel

In January 1942 the first class of 60 women designated to become officers and NCOs was recruited and trained at the Sarafand army base.

A Hebrew anthem was written for the female recruits. In June of 1942 the national institutions announced that military service would be mandatory for all women between the ages of 20-30 who did not have children. Due to religious objections however, not all of the eligible women were actually enlisted in the ATS.

Throughout the course of the war, a total of 3,500 Hebrew women were recruited to the ATS, in addition to 700 women who served in the WAAF, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Female soldiers served as drivers and nurses and filled various administrative and munitions roles.

During the Second Battle of El Alamein, Jewish drivers from the ATS brought badly needed troops and weapons to the front, an effort which helped block the Nazi advance toward Mandatory Palestine.

The Yishuv benefited a great deal from all of this. Many of the female volunteers later joined the various Jewish underground organizations. Their service had enabled them to acquire professional knowledge and expertise in an array of military fields, a fact which contributed immensely to these groups’ struggles against the British themselves as well as to Israeli efforts during the War of Independence.

Historically speaking, this episode provided a significant boost to the status of women in the Yishuv, as they proved they could contribute no less than their male peers.

In the underground movements, many women took on active roles in actual combat, and were not limited to support duties, though this policy was changed with the formation of the Israel Defense Forces in 1948. With the IDF taking shape during the War of Independence, many ATS alumni joined the ranks of the new Israeli army in command roles. IDF policy has since gone through many evolutions and today, thousands of Israeli female soldiers serve in active duty combat roles.


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