By Reut Gawiser
In the early 1940s, the Jewish community in the Land of Israel, the Yishuv, faced enormous tensions. Its members looked worryingly at the terrible events unfolding in Europe, with the Nazis conquering country after country, advancing in great strides towards the Middle East. Lebanon and Syria became active arenas for the collaborationist Vichy regime, while other countries in the region did not need much persuasion in joining up with the cause of wiping out the Jewish People. The Jews of Mandatory Palestine had only Britain to rely on, but the United Kingdom was already up to its neck in dealing with the European front and the Nazi attacks on the British Isles themselves. It was at this time that the Palmach was founded.
The Palmach, (the word is a Hebrew acronym meaning “strike companies”) was born out of a unification of a number of Jewish military organizations operating in the Land of Israel in those years, with the knowledge and approval of the British Mandatory government. The goal was to train Palmach fighters (including female fighters later on) to fight the Nazi enemy, if and when they tried to conquer the country.
The Palmach was never forced to put its original training to the test. German forces led by Field Marshall Erwin Romel were stopped by the British Army at El Alamein in Egypt in late 1942 and never reached the Land of Israel. The British thus concluded that there was no longer a need for the Palmach and sought to dismantle it. The Palmach in turn decided instead to go underground and even operate against the British authorities themselves, until the independent State of Israel was declared.
Upon going underground and with the establishment of the Jewish Brigade as part of the British Army, which attracted many Jewish soldiers into its ranks, the Palmach faced a manpower crisis. To overcome it, Labor Zionist leader Yitzhak Tabenkin conceived a novel solution, connecting the Palmach companies to kibbutzim throughout the country: the Palmachniks would work two weeks of every month on a kibbutz, receiving lodgings, food, and weapons in return from the kibbutzim. They would then spend the rest of the month training and taking part in various operations.
This arrangement worked very well, to the point that Palmach leaders thought up another idea – creating “training groups” or gar’inim, groups of young people who trained together while establishing new kibbutzim or helping to stabilize young ones. It was the perfect combination between the spirit of pioneering which beat in the heart of the founding generation and the clear and unavoidable need to protect the Jewish Yishuv. Among the kibbutzim established by these Palmach groups were Erez, Mashavei Sadeh, Yir’on, the aptly named Kibbutz Palmachim, and many more.
During the War of Independence, the Palmach was an organized fighting force numbering over 2,000 battle-ready soldiers. In fact, the Palmach was the first organization to prepare a reserve force of veteran members, something that eventually evolved into the IDF reserves. Once the war was over and the underground disbanded, the Palmach’s fighters and commanders were integrated into the IDF’s chain of command, including such luminaries as Yitzhak Rabin, Uzi Narkis, Yigal Alon, and many others.
But what would become of the military-agricultural project that the Palmach oversaw, now that the organization was defunct and part of the regular state army? Due to the concerns of kibbutz and youth movement members, a letter was sent to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion asking him to ensure that young soldiers who were assigned to the training groups would maintain the mix of defending the country and working the land, lest the farms be abandoned and left to waste.
A few days later, Ben-Gurion responded: “I confirm the receipt of your letter from the day of 10.8.48 regarding the core settlement groups of the class of 1931,” Ben-Gurion wrote in his distinctive, direct style. “Your aim to preserve the core settlement groups… is fundamentally correct and the Defense Ministry will give military HQ instructions in this regard…”
And so it was. The pre-state Palmach training groups became the training groups of the “Nahal” – a Hebrew acronym standing for Noar Halutzi Lochem – “Pioneering Fighting Youth”. The Nahal program brought together the principles of settlement and defense, a combination which many consider to be the ideal of the native Israeli sabra – a brave fighter who also works the land.
The training period was now replaced with assignment to new Nahal military-agricultural outposts. Core groups of male and female soldiers would be tasked with setting up an outpost, or holding (היאחזות), in a particular location, usually in border areas or regions of strategic importance. The group’s members would lay down the civilian infrastructure and also serve as a military force defending the settlement until it became a kibbutz or moshav capable of absorbing civilian members.
The first Nahal military settlement was Nahal Oz, established opposite Gaza City in 1951, which became a kibbutz two years later. This kibbutz was one of the many communities that came under attack by Hamas on October 7, 2023.
These military-agricultural settlements became a symbol of the Nahal program over the decades, with hundreds of communities being founded in this manner across many different regions. They include kibbutzim within the “Green Line” as well as settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). The people who live in them today can represent opposite ends of the Israeli political spectrum, but for many years they all shared a similar ideology and vision.
Paratrooping Nahal Soldiers and the Heroic Story of Mitla Pass
Alongside its important work in settling the country, Nahal was a military unit for all intents and purposes, whose soldiers gave their all in every military conflict in Israeli history. In the 1950s, the Nahal Parachuted Battalion (whose soldiers came from either the moshavim and kibbutzim or from religious yeshivahs) was attached to the Paratroopers Brigade. For this reason, to this day Nahal soldiers are given the red boots usually associated with IDF paratroopers. Along with the soldiers of the Paratroopers Brigade, they took part in the reprisal raids carried out in response to “fedayeen” terrorist attacks.
In the Sinai Campaign of 1956, the 88th Nahal Battalion, attached to the paratroopers, took part in the Battle of Mitla Pass in Sinai, one of the most famous engagements in IDF history. When the force was dropped near the combat zone, it encountered Egyptian ambushes. The Egyptians used heavy artillery to target a few dozen IDF soldiers stuck in a narrow pass with no room to move their own heavy weapons. They waited for backup for over 24 hours, while doing their best to return fire.
Even today, the Battle of Mitla Pass represents the determination, fighting spirit, and sheer doggedness the IDF is known for. At the time, however, many believed the battle was unnecessary and too costly: 38 Paratroop and Nahal soldiers were killed, one went missing, and over a hundred were wounded.
After the battle, Ariel Sharon, then commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, said the following of the ordeal: “Twenty men in a death trap, crying for help and their commander rushes forward to extract them… There are deeds that are examined not only in the immediate context… but which leave their imprint on the character of the army and its moral superiority for years and future generations to come. Rescuing wounded on the battlefield is such a deed.”
Nahal Goes Onstage
What do Arik Einstein, Yossi Banai, and Chaim Topol share with the band Kaveret, Yardenah Arazi, and even Dafna Dekel and Hani Nahmias (really, this list could go on forever)? The answer, of course, is the Nahal Troupe.
Even this achievement can be credited to Nahal’s pre-state forerunner – the Palmach, the first Jewish military organization to establish its own entertainment troupe known as the Cheezbatron or “campfire story ensemble”, whose members eventually became true stars of the Israeli cultural scene – including Shaike Ofir, Arik Lavi, and Naomi Polani. Nahal continued this legacy of song and merriment with its own musical troupe, which would give the young state many of its most beloved performing icons.
It was the “Pop Idol” of its time, and many of its stars would become national cultural icons, influencing the Hebrew songbook to this very day. Many units in the IDF had similar troupes, but the Nahal troupe clearly stood above them all.
This, too, can be attributed to the creativity and determination of the Nahal program. The best Israeli poets, composers, and songwriters worked with the troupe over the years, including Naomi Shemer of “Jerusalem of Gold” fame, as well as Chaim Heffer and Dubi Zeltzer.
The Nahal troupe enjoyed popularity and success for several decades, but over time, its significant cultural influence waned, as Israeli society evolved. The troupe closed down in 1993, and although it was reestablished a decade later, it couldn’t rekindle the spark it had lit among Israelis in its glory years.
Nahal Soldiers in Green
The 1980s brought a new front to Israel’s wars: Lebanon. After the war which led Prime Minister Menachem Begin to resign and say “I can’t go on any longer,” the IDF once again changed form and new units were established, with older ones undergoing changes. The Nahal battalions were united into a single brigade. In the late 1980s, the Nahal Brigade received the beret it is known for to this day – bright green, inspired by the unit’s agricultural history and connection with the land.
A Spearhead Brigade
The soldiers of the Nahal Brigade were frequently placed in hotspots, manning IDF outposts in Lebanon and in Judea and Samaria. The brigade was divided into four battalions: the 931st, 932nd, 50th, and a reconnaissance battalion (Gadsar). In the 1990s, instead of establishing new communities, members of Nahal training groups frequently dedicated a period of their army service to helping educate and assist youth in urban and peripheral areas.
This was not the only innovation brought in by the brigade. Nahal was always characterized by innovative thinking, and this continued into the 1990s.
In 1999, Nahal established the Netzah Yehudah or Nahal Haredi Battalion, the first battalion of its kind, meant only for yeshivah students and Haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews). In this battalion, soldiers can maintain a Haredi lifestyle alongside meaningful military service in a combat unit. The battalion is now attached to the Kfir Brigade, but there is no doubt that the Nahal Brigade played an important role in the battalion’s history.
Another innovation to come out of the Nahal Brigade in the last few decades is the Caracal Battalion.
The caracal is a desert cat can leap to a height of nearly ten feet and will not hesitate to fight larger predators such as hyenas. It is silent and stealthy, but also determined and deadly. It’s therefore easy to understand why this was the name chosen when it was decided in the early 2000s to launch an experiment – a mixed male-female company within the Nahal Brigade. The experiment, as we know today, succeeded.
Additional caracal companies were formed shortly after, with recruits coming from the Nahal training groups. In 2004, the companies were merged into a battalion charged with guarding a sector stretching 80 miles, and the battalion itself was expanded significantly. The battalion’s number, 33, symbolizes the 33 female Palmach soldiers who fell in the War of Independence.
The formation of the battalion did not pass without criticism. Some questioned the capabilities of the female soldiers, who have constituted about 70% of the battalion’s personnel to this day. The following story is the ultimate response to the doubters: In 2014, Capt. Or Ben Yehudah, then a battalion officer, received an urgent call to go and check out a developing incident near the border fence. Three jeeps were charging towards the fence from the Egyptian side. When they reached it, the people in the vehicles emerged and began trying to climb over the fence, equipped with ladders and guns. Other vehicles waiting for the suspicious convoy were spotted on the Israeli side, and the initial assumption was this was a drug smuggling operation, which is typical in the region.
Most smugglers are quick to flee the moment they spot IDF soldiers approaching. But Capt. Ben Yehuda and the two soldiers who were with her, saw that this time was different. In fact, the suspicious figures opened fire on them! The “smugglers” turned out to be 23 Al-Qaeda terrorists armed with rifles and RPGs.
The soldiers fired back and waited for reinforcements. Aviv, one of the two accompanying soldiers, was shot and seriously wounded. Ben Yehuda extracted him under fire and was herself wounded while doing so. The battle lasted for a few more minutes until the terrorists were neutralized thanks to backup forces arriving on site.
Despite her injury, Ben Yehudah refused to evacuate until the incident was over. In recognition of her heroic conduct under fire, Or Ben Yehudah received a medal from the head of IDF Southern Command. Today, Ben Yehudah is a Lieutenant Colonel who serves as commander of the Caracal Battalion (which was recently placed under the Border Defense Corps but which still brings in young recruits from the Nahal Brigade). On October 7, she conducted a 14-hour firefight at Sufa outpost and a number of neighboring civilian communities, during which she and her forces neutralized dozens of Hamas terrorists, saving many lives. Her deputy, Maj. Avraham Hovelashvili, fell in these battles.
Since the days of the Palmach and the War of Independence, Nahal soldiers have proved fearless fighters as well as dedicated farmers who worked the land. Their contribution to the building and defense of this country could fill many more pages in the chronicles of the history of the state. Nahal soldiers brought their determination and camaraderie from the battlefields to the wheat fields of Israel’s kibbutzim and moshavim. Their contribution to shaping the landscapes of the country we love is incredibly significant and wide-ranging.
These days, when it seems nothing is as it was, there is a Hebrew song by Yoram Taharlev, whose words seem like a prayer for better days:
“The Nahal soldiers return, the Nahal soldiers return
To the orchard and the grove, to the coops and the vineyards
The Nahal soldiers return, the Nahal soldiers return
And life returns, and life returns
To its track.”
(Shir Hanahla’im – “The song of the Nahal Soldiers”, by Yoram Taharlev)