Nahal: The Story of the Green Brigade

In the early days, Nahal soldiers served as both fearless fighters and hard-working farmers. They brought their determination and camaraderie from the battlefields to the wheat fields of Israel's kibbutzim and moshavim. The Nahal program is even responsible for some of the finest songs written in Hebrew! This is the story of the IDF's green brigade

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Nahal soldiers in Nahal Oz, 1950. Photo by Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

By Reut Gawiser

In the early 1940s, the Jewish community in the Land of Israel, the Yishuv, faced enormous tensions. Its members looked worryingly at the terrible events unfolding in Europe, with the Nazis conquering country after country, advancing in great strides towards the Middle East. Lebanon and Syria became active arenas for the collaborationist Vichy regime, while other countries in the region did not need much persuasion in joining up with the cause of wiping out the Jewish People. The Jews of Mandatory Palestine had only Britain to rely on, but the United Kingdom was already up to its neck in dealing with the European front and the Nazi attacks on the British Isles themselves. It was at this time that the Palmach was founded.

The Palmach, (the word is a Hebrew acronym meaning “strike companies”) was born out of a unification of a number of Jewish military organizations operating in the Land of Israel in those years, with the knowledge and approval of the British Mandatory government. The goal was to train Palmach fighters (including female fighters later on) to fight the Nazi enemy, if and when they tried to conquer the country.

Uzi Narkis (left) and his comrades in the Palmach’s Company A on a trek to Masada, 1944. Source: Uzi Narkis Collection. This item is part of the Archive Network Israel project, and is made accessible thanks to the collaboration of Yad Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The Palmach was never forced to put its original training to the test. German forces led by Field Marshall Erwin Romel were stopped by the British Army at El Alamein in Egypt in late 1942 and never reached the Land of Israel. The British thus concluded that there was no longer a need for the Palmach and sought to dismantle it. The Palmach in turn decided instead to go underground and even operate against the British authorities themselves, until the independent State of Israel was declared.

Upon going underground and with the establishment of the Jewish Brigade as part of the British Army, which attracted many Jewish soldiers into its ranks, the Palmach faced a manpower crisis. To overcome it, Labor Zionist leader Yitzhak Tabenkin conceived a novel solution, connecting the Palmach companies to kibbutzim throughout the country: the Palmachniks would work two weeks of every month on a kibbutz, receiving lodgings, food, and weapons in return from the kibbutzim. They would then spend the rest of the month training and taking part in various operations.

This arrangement worked very well, to the point that Palmach leaders thought up another idea – creating “training groups” or gar’inim, groups of young people who trained together while establishing new kibbutzim or helping to stabilize young ones. It was the perfect combination between the spirit of pioneering which beat in the heart of the founding generation and the clear and unavoidable need to protect the Jewish Yishuv. Among the kibbutzim established by these Palmach groups were Erez, Mashavei Sadeh, Yir’on, the aptly named Kibbutz Palmachim, and many more.

A Palmachnik in training working on a lathe at a framing workshop, Kibbutz Givat Chaim, 1942. Source: Yehoshua Levanon Collection. This item is part of the Archive Network Israel project, and is made accessible thanks to the collaboration of Yad Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Heritage and the National Library of Israel

During the War of Independence, the Palmach was an organized fighting force numbering over 2,000 battle-ready soldiers. In fact, the Palmach was the first organization to prepare a reserve force of veteran members, something that eventually evolved into the IDF reserves. Once the war was over and the underground disbanded, the Palmach’s fighters and commanders were integrated into the IDF’s chain of command, including such luminaries as Yitzhak Rabin, Uzi Narkis, Yigal Alon, and many others.

But what would become of the military-agricultural project that the Palmach oversaw, now that the organization was defunct and part of the regular state army? Due to the concerns of kibbutz and youth movement members, a letter was sent to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion asking him to ensure that young soldiers who were assigned to the training groups would maintain the mix of defending the country and working the land, lest the farms be abandoned and left to waste.

A few days later, Ben-Gurion responded: “I confirm the receipt of your letter from the day of 10.8.48 regarding the core settlement groups of the class of 1931,” Ben-Gurion wrote in his distinctive, direct style. “Your aim to preserve the core settlement groups… is fundamentally correct and the Defense Ministry will give military HQ instructions in this regard…”

Letter sent to heads of youth movements and kibbutzim hosting the training groups: “The core settlement groups should not be allowed to disintegrate.” Source: Ben Gurion Heritage Archive, Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel

And so it was. The pre-state Palmach training groups became the training groups of the “Nahal” – a Hebrew acronym standing for Noar Halutzi Lochem – “Pioneering Fighting Youth”. The Nahal program brought together the principles of settlement and defense, a combination which many consider to be the ideal of the native Israeli sabra – a brave fighter who also works the land.

The training period was now replaced with assignment to new Nahal military-agricultural outposts. Core groups of male and female soldiers would be tasked with setting up an outpost, or holding (היאחזות), in a particular location, usually in border areas or regions of strategic importance. The group’s members would lay down the civilian infrastructure and also serve as a military force defending the settlement until it became a kibbutz or moshav capable of absorbing civilian members.

The first Nahal military settlement was Nahal Oz, established opposite Gaza City in 1951, which became a kibbutz two years later. This kibbutz was one of the many communities that came under attack by Hamas on October 7, 2023.

These military-agricultural settlements became a symbol of the Nahal program over the decades, with hundreds of communities being founded in this manner across many different regions. They include kibbutzim within the “Green Line” as well as settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). The people who live in them today can represent opposite ends of the Israeli political spectrum, but for many years they all shared a similar ideology and vision.

Paratrooping Nahal Soldiers and the Heroic Story of Mitla Pass

Alongside its important work in settling the country, Nahal was a military unit for all intents and purposes, whose soldiers gave their all in every military conflict in Israeli history. In the 1950s, the Nahal Parachuted Battalion (whose soldiers came from either the moshavim and kibbutzim or from religious yeshivahs) was attached to the Paratroopers Brigade. For this reason, to this day Nahal soldiers are given the red boots usually associated with IDF paratroopers. Along with the soldiers of the Paratroopers Brigade, they took part in the reprisal raids carried out in response to “fedayeen” terrorist attacks.

In the Sinai Campaign of 1956, the 88th Nahal Battalion, attached to the paratroopers, took part in the Battle of Mitla Pass in Sinai, one of the most famous engagements in IDF history. When the force was dropped near the combat zone, it encountered Egyptian ambushes. The Egyptians used heavy artillery to target a few dozen IDF soldiers stuck in a narrow pass with no room to move their own heavy weapons. They waited for backup for over 24 hours, while doing their best to return fire.

Even today, the Battle of Mitla Pass represents the determination, fighting spirit, and sheer doggedness the IDF is known for. At the time, however, many believed the battle was unnecessary and too costly: 38 Paratroop and Nahal soldiers were killed, one went missing, and over a hundred were wounded.

After the battle, Ariel Sharon, then commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, said the following of the ordeal: “Twenty men in a death trap, crying for help and their commander rushes forward to extract them… There are deeds that are examined not only in the immediate context… but which leave their imprint on the character of the army and its moral superiority for years and future generations to come. Rescuing wounded on the battlefield is such a deed.”

Paratroop Brigade commander Ariel Sharon says farewell to his soldiers just before entering into the Mitla Pass during the Sinai Campaign of 1956. Source: Mordechai Bar-On Collection. This item is part of the Archive Network Israel project, and is made accessible thanks to the collaboration of Yad Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Nahal Goes Onstage

What do Arik Einstein, Yossi Banai, and Chaim Topol share with the band Kaveret, Yardenah Arazi, and even Dafna Dekel and Hani Nahmias (really, this list could go on forever)? The answer, of course, is the Nahal Troupe.

Even this achievement can be credited to Nahal’s pre-state forerunner – the Palmach, the first Jewish military organization to establish its own entertainment troupe known as the Cheezbatron or “campfire story ensemble”, whose members eventually became true stars of the Israeli cultural scene – including Shaike Ofir, Arik Lavi, and Naomi Polani. Nahal continued this legacy of song and merriment with its own musical troupe, which would give the young state many of its most beloved performing icons.

Members of the Cheezbatron perform in the Arava desert. Shaike Ophir (left) and Naomi Polani (second from right) included, May 1949. Photo by Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

It was the “Pop Idol” of its time, and many of its stars would become national cultural icons, influencing the Hebrew songbook to this very day. Many units in the IDF had similar troupes, but the Nahal troupe clearly stood above them all.

How?

This, too, can be attributed to the creativity and determination of the Nahal program. The best Israeli poets, composers, and songwriters worked with the troupe over the years, including Naomi Shemer of “Jerusalem of Gold” fame, as well as Chaim Heffer and Dubi Zeltzer.

The Nahal troupe enjoyed popularity and success for several decades, but over time, its significant cultural influence waned, as Israeli society evolved. The troupe closed down in 1993, and although it was reestablished a decade later, it couldn’t rekindle the spark it had lit among Israelis in its glory years.

Nahal Soldiers in Green

The Nahal Will Be Like Any Other Infantry Unit: Will Receive a Green BeretMaariv, June 1988

The 1980s brought a new front to Israel’s wars: Lebanon. After the war which led Prime Minister Menachem Begin to resign and say “I can’t go on any longer,” the IDF once again changed form and new units were established, with older ones undergoing changes. The Nahal battalions were united into a single brigade. In the late 1980s, the Nahal Brigade received the beret it is known for to this day – bright green, inspired by the unit’s agricultural history and connection with the land.

Nahal soldiers after receiving their beret. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

A Spearhead Brigade

Nahal soldiers in training. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

The soldiers of the Nahal Brigade were frequently placed in hotspots, manning IDF outposts in Lebanon and in Judea and Samaria. The brigade was divided into four battalions: the 931st, 932nd, 50th, and a reconnaissance battalion (Gadsar). In the 1990s, instead of establishing new communities, members of Nahal training groups frequently dedicated a period of their army service to helping educate and assist youth in urban and peripheral areas.

This was not the only innovation brought in by the brigade. Nahal was always characterized by innovative thinking, and this continued into the 1990s.

In 1999, Nahal established the Netzah Yehudah or Nahal Haredi Battalion, the first battalion of its kind, meant only for yeshivah students and Haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews). In this battalion, soldiers can maintain a Haredi lifestyle alongside meaningful military service in a combat unit. The battalion is now attached to the Kfir Brigade, but there is no doubt that the Nahal Brigade played an important role in the battalion’s history.

Another innovation to come out of the Nahal Brigade in the last few decades is the Caracal Battalion.

The caracal is a desert cat can leap to a height of nearly ten feet and will not hesitate to fight larger predators such as hyenas. It is silent and stealthy, but also determined and deadly. It’s therefore easy to understand why this was the name chosen when it was decided in the early 2000s to launch an experiment – a mixed male-female company within the Nahal Brigade. The experiment, as we know today, succeeded.

Additional caracal companies were formed shortly after, with recruits coming from the Nahal training groups. In 2004, the companies were merged into a battalion charged with guarding a sector stretching 80 miles, and the battalion itself was expanded significantly. The battalion’s number, 33, symbolizes the 33 female Palmach soldiers who fell in the War of Independence.

The formation of the battalion did not pass without criticism. Some questioned the capabilities of the female soldiers, who have constituted about 70% of the battalion’s personnel to this day. The following story is the ultimate response to the doubters: In 2014, Capt. Or Ben Yehudah, then a battalion officer, received an urgent call to go and check out a developing incident near the border fence. Three jeeps were charging towards the fence from the Egyptian side. When they reached it, the people in the vehicles emerged and began trying to climb over the fence, equipped with ladders and guns. Other vehicles waiting for the suspicious convoy were spotted on the Israeli side, and the initial assumption was this was a drug smuggling operation, which is typical in the region.

Most smugglers are quick to flee the moment they spot IDF soldiers approaching. But Capt. Ben Yehuda and the two soldiers who were with her, saw that this time was different. In fact, the suspicious figures opened fire on them! The “smugglers” turned out to be 23 Al-Qaeda terrorists armed with rifles and RPGs.

The soldiers fired back and waited for reinforcements. Aviv, one of the two accompanying soldiers, was shot and seriously wounded. Ben Yehuda extracted him under fire and was herself wounded while doing so. The battle lasted for a few more minutes until the terrorists were neutralized thanks to backup forces arriving on site.

Despite her injury, Ben Yehudah refused to evacuate until the incident was over. In recognition of her heroic conduct under fire, Or Ben Yehudah received a medal from the head of IDF Southern Command. Today, Ben Yehudah is a Lieutenant Colonel who serves as commander of the Caracal Battalion (which was recently placed under the Border Defense Corps but which still brings in young recruits from the Nahal Brigade). On October 7, she conducted a 14-hour firefight at Sufa outpost and a number of neighboring civilian communities, during which she and her forces neutralized dozens of Hamas terrorists, saving many lives. Her deputy, Maj. Avraham Hovelashvili, fell in these battles.

Since the days of the Palmach and the War of Independence, Nahal soldiers have proved fearless fighters as well as dedicated farmers who worked the land. Their contribution to the building and defense of this country could fill many more pages in the chronicles of the history of the state. Nahal soldiers brought their determination and camaraderie from the battlefields to the wheat fields of Israel’s kibbutzim and moshavim. Their contribution to shaping the landscapes of the country we love is incredibly significant and wide-ranging.

These days, when it seems nothing is as it was, there is a Hebrew song by Yoram Taharlev, whose words seem like a prayer for better days:

“The Nahal soldiers return, the Nahal soldiers return

To the orchard and the grove, to the coops and the vineyards

The Nahal soldiers return, the Nahal soldiers return

Like everyone

And life returns, and life returns

To its track.”

(Shir Hanahla’im – “The song of the Nahal Soldiers”, by Yoram Taharlev)

Children of Heroes: The Story of Ma’ale HaHamisha

Is it a good idea to raise children in a place constantly under enemy fire? How much joy can there be for a ten-month-old baby whose father has died for a cause? This is a story of childhood spent in Kibbutz Ma'ale HaHamisha – a story of love, laughter and dedication, alongside constant threat and loss

Yaara, the only surviving offspring of the five murdered men after whom Kibbutz Ma'ale HaHamisha was named. Courtesy of the Ma'ale HaHamisha archives.

“Crowds gathered once again, the same crowds that came to the funeral, but their purpose now was different. Instead of tears of sorrow, their eyes glistened with tears of light and happiness. The joy poured out from their hearts and took hold like a flame, spreading further and further afield. Shoulder to shoulder, hands on each other’s backs, the atmosphere was intoxicating, hands moving, feet pounding the ground in circles. The dance began. Eyes were closed, and the heaviness in our bodies dissipated. Everyone moving together in a circle, everyone trembling, in an ecstatic hora.”

(Description written by Yitzhak, one of the first members of the group, on 20 Tammuz 5699 [July 7, 1939] when the cornerstone was laid)

They didn’t originally call the place Ma’ale HaHamisha (“Ascent of the Five”) because the disaster hadn’t yet happened. They were “just” a group of young pioneers, one of the many from Europe who came to build a new home – for them as individuals and for their nation – in the Land of Israel.

The first core group of pioneers, which called itself BeMa’ale (“in the ascent”), consisted of members of two separate groups of Zionist activists – one from the Vitkinia movement and one from the Gordonia movement – who came together in temporary residences in Kiryat Anavim in the Jerusalem hills, west of the city. They were later joined by people who arrived with the Youth Aliyah organization.

The goal was to establish a new settlement point. The question under debate was whether they should settle in the valley or take on the heroic task of “conquering the mountain” – settling in a strategic elevated position under harsher conditions where it was more difficult to grow crops.

First members of the group at Ma’ale HaHamisha. This photo is preserved in the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives and is available online at the National Library of Israel (IL-MAHM-001-07-063-144)

These were the days of Arab revolt (1936-1939) in Mandatory Palestine, and in the meantime, the group answered the Histadrut’s [the Zionist labor union] call to take over the operation of the stone quarry in Nahalat Yitzhak that had been abandoned by its Arab owners. The work in the stone quarry was difficult and unfamiliar to these group members who had mainly been given agricultural training. The housing conditions were harsh and uncomfortable; they slept in one central hall and had to guard the area in shifts after work. They also worked simultaneously in forestry.

Within this group of pioneers still finding their feet, was a young couple, Yitzhak and Hanna Migdal. During that initial stage characterized by hard manual labor and frequent Arab attacks, with an as yet unclear future, Hanna gave birth to their daughter in the old Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Baby Yaara was the couple’s firstborn, but she was the third child born to the first core group.

Baby Yaara. Photo courtesy of the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives

Despite differences of opinion and the growing pains of those early days, it was clear to all the members that for the sake of the children and their future, they needed to decide where to settle.

In the end, this difficult decision was made for them.

On November 9, 1937, some members of the community went out to pave a road on Har Haruah (“The Mount of Wind”), just south of where the kibbutz is situated today. They arrived during the early hours of the morning with their tools loaded on a donkey, and walked straight into an Arab ambush. They were shot and murdered almost at point blank. The group that arrived right after them got there just in time to see the murderers flee.

Aharon Olishevsky, Aryeh Mordechovitz, Yehoshua Pochovsky, Moshe Bar Giora (Baumgarten), and Yitzhak Migdal – baby Yaara’s father – were brutally murdered.

The members of the small group were beside themselves, but the decision was made. They decided to settle on the mountain, despite the physical and security-related challenges this would pose. They felt they needed to do this to honor those who were murdered in the past and for the sake of their children’s future.

A page in the members’ book where Yitzhak Migdal’s death is noted, somewhat laconically – met, “dead”. Courtesy of the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives.

The Ma’ale HaHamisha archives, which have been operating for many years to preserve every piece of history related to the kibbutz, contain writings from this period, which reveal the feelings of the members and which document the pivotal moments of their pioneering days.

These writings are available digitally to the general public through the National Library website as part of the Archive Network Israel project. The project is a collaboration between the archives of different Israeli communities (such as Ma’ale HaHamisha), the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.

Towards the end of July 1938, the group left their temporary residences at Kiryat Anavim, accompanied by an auxiliary force of Jerusalemites and residents of other nearby towns. They headed uphill to the place where the five were buried and began their ceremony to lay the cornerstone for the new community at the top of the mountain.

The companions helped set up the first lodging arrangements and fortifications, but they ultimately departed, leaving behind the members of the BeMa’ale group, who were carefully chosen to be the first pioneers to prepare the land and buildings for the rest who would follow.

“15 members remained. Around a hard rock, they sat down for their first meal there. Such sublime contentment, such a pleasant feeling came over them when, after such tumult, they could see what they had accomplished with their own hands.

The summer breeze blew and swept away the footprints of the crowd that had been there, noisily blowing around the new shack, surrounding it all around, and when it realized that it could not be subdued, it went off in another direction toward the wilderness.

From this day on, on the high peak, the Ma’ale HaHamisha enterprise will continue to develop, nurtured by a few members who have formed bonds of life and death, eternal bonds, with this place. “

(Yitzhak, Ma’ale HaHamisha, 20 Tammuz, 5669 [July 7, 1939])

“In memory of the “BeMa’ale” members who sanctified the place with their blood” – A report in Davar describing the establishment of Ma’ale HaHamisha, July 22, 1938. From the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

The first group included a few members who “knew a bit about guarding and security.” The group organized itself with military discipline, in the heart of a hostile area prone to Arab attacks. The place didn’t yet have the character of a proper community. Women hadn’t even arrived yet, except for one young lady who filled a medical position.

They prepared the land around them for agricultural harvesting but mainly they focused on construction – everything from homes to fortifications to henhouses, as well as a water line connecting to nearby Kiryat Anavim.

“Just as they finished the first two [Jewish] agency houses, the children came up, along with their parents. How joyful the toddlers were, who also made the ascent. Their vision of Aliyah [immigration, ascent] was realized and manifested in a deep, childlike joy. And who among us can accurately express the feelings of children; and it is not easy for children, but they are pioneers. And so, step by step, the place was conquered, and it submitted to humans, the masters of nature and the creators of culture.”

(Leah, Ma’ale HaHamisha)

The first children of Ma’ale HaHamisha. This photo is preserved in the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives and is available online at the National Library of Israel ( IL-MAHM-001-07-063-055)

With the arrival of the children, the community transitioned from a semi-military outpost to a home, a place where the members could start families and raise future generations.

One might assume that children growing up next to combat positions, with their parents and all the other adults around them constantly busy with their daily tasks – toiling and working the difficult land while also taking on long and demanding guard duty shifts – would have to accept not being the primary focus of attention.

The opposite actually proved true; the children were a source of joy and hope for all the members – not just their parents or caretakers.

This is how Tzila Cohen-Rotblit described the first day in nursery school for Dalia, the kibbutz’s first newborn:

“This is an important event in our internal lives: Dalia is leaving [baby] care and moving over to nursery school. A new, more interesting, but also more difficult chapter is beginning for her… Despite our best wishes, we are unable to arrange for a nursery school here… At this moment, with the great changes in Dalinka’s young and tender life, we wish for ourselves, that this firstborn daughter won’t disappoint our hopes that we have placed in her, that she may grow and merit praise and renown.”

When Yaara was born to Hannah and the late Yitzhak, the nannies carefully monitored her development and growth. In a journal that was ahead of its time, predating contemporary baby wellness clinics’ records, her weight, what she ate, and any childhood illnesses she suffered were recorded in neat and meticulous handwriting.

Tracking baby Yaara’s development, courtesy of the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives

By the time she had grown a bit, a nursery school was set up in the kibbutz itself, and Yaara didn’t need to leave her natural environment every day like her older friend Dalia had. The teacher, Bedna, loved the children dearly, and they loved her back.

Their lives were full of songs and stories and they had dolls, games, books and an almost normal routine, just like any child anywhere in the world. It was as if they didn’t live on an exposed mountain opposite enemies who’d take every opportunity to break into their homes and murder them. As if a few dozen meters from the nursery school there wasn’t a guard post equipped with submachine guns and grenades. As if they had never heard the sounds of shells exploding or heavy bursts of gunfire while they were singing their morning songs.

They were almost like typical children, complaining about showers that were too cold, annoying things the adults demanded of them like taking off their shoes when coming inside (paved roads and sidewalks were nowhere to be found, and depending on the season, the shoes could be full of mud or dust), and the long 2-3 kilometer walk to school.

But was this cloak of normalcy enough to cover up the fact that Yaara’s father wasn’t waiting for her every evening at home? That Dalia, Gideon, Eitana and Gila’s parents left home every night for guard duty?

Parents and children on the kibbutz, 1938. This photo is preserved in the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives and is available online at the National Library (IL-MAHM-001-07-063-040)

On November 29, 1947, the parents and nannies tried to choose between maintaining normal routine and recognizing the magnitude of what was happening: The children weren’t allowed to stay up, but were promised that they’d be woken up with the results of the vote on the United Nations Partition Plan. In the end, they were dragged out of their beds to take part in the festivities in the kibbutz’s dining room, when it was announced that the UN had approved the decision to establish a Jewish state alongside an Arab one.

But the jubilation didn’t last long. Their surroundings began to become more and more dangerous. Some men from the Palmach (the elite Haganah fighting force) had come to stay at the kibbutz and assist in defending and training the members for the war that was now underway. The children observed their training and lifestyle with curiosity, and occasionally they’d hear from the nursery schoolteachers that this one had been killed or that one had been injured.

School was cancelled and the children now helped fill sandbags, practiced what to do during episodes of shelling (there was no safe room; usually they just lay down between the bed and the wall in their rooms) and mostly tried not to bother the preoccupied adults.

Children helping at the cow shed, 1946. This photo is preserved in the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives and is available online at the National Library ( IL-MAHM-001-07-013-006)

After the fall of Gush Etzion, the kibbutz received a warning to expect an attack by enemy forces who were no longer tied down in the fighting there. This was just around the time when construction of the first shelter was finished. One night in early May, when heavy shelling began, the children were moved into the shelter, which still contained remnants of construction materials.

“In the shelter, I dressed the children and managed to give them breakfast,” kibbutz member Edna Wexler explained:

“We hadn’t yet managed to organize the children inside the shelter when the order suddenly came to evacuate the place immediately. I have no idea where they came from but the Palmach guys suddenly appeared inside the shelter. They removed the mothers who had arrived so as to streamline the evacuation and speed it up. They didn’t let the mothers intervene and look for their children, but instead put one of the little children in each of the girls’ arms and ordered them to run towards Kiryat Anavim. The older kids ran after us themselves.”

In Kiryat Anavim, buses were already waiting to evacuate them to Jerusalem – first to homes in the Katamon neighborhood and then to the Ratisbonne Monastery, where they remained until the end of the war.

After the war, they returned. And to this day, they fill the lawns, orchards, and pathways of the kibbutz with the sounds of laughter and life.

The Appeal of the Brown Beret: The Story of the IDF’s Golani Brigade

“Every corner of the country is marked with the blood of Golani Brigade soldiers. That is the way of the brigade: to be wherever Golani soldiers are needed, to decide the battle, to bring victory, to give life to the State of Israel.” The words of Yitzhak Rabin describe the feelings of many today in Israel

Golani soldiers form the name of the Golani Brigade. From: “Brown Beret – The Story of the Golani Soldiers” [Hebrew], p. 122

How it all started: farmers protecting their land

The Golani Brigade was founded in February 1948, a few months after the breakout of Israel’s War of Independence. The name, of course, comes from the Golan Heights, which the brigade founders could see at a distance from their moshavim and kibbutzim in the country’s north. In its first few months, the brigade operated sporadically – soldiers would leave work on the farm for a specific mission assigned to the brigade and then go back to their daily routine as farmers.

Golani Brigade soldiers enjoying some downtime during training in the Galilee, 1950. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, at the National Library of Israel

In the 1950s, many of the veterans of the War of Independence were discharged, and the ranks of the Golani Brigade were filled with new immigrants from the cities and the transit camps, people unfamiliar with the country’s conditions and customs. Rehavam “Gandhi” Ze’evi, who was commander of the brigade’s 13th “Gideon” Battalion, said of this time:

“We found that our soldiers came from some 30 different countries, and beyond preparing them for the army, there was a need to teach them Hebrew – reading, writing, and speech.”

“Golani,” he said, “was a real melting pot.”

Soldiers of Golani’s 12th Battalion, 1951. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, at the National Library of Israel

Golani, despite its natural affiliation with Israel’s north, did not limit its operations to that region. Once the brigade completed its missions in its own sector during the War of Independence, it moved south to take part in a number of important operations, including the conquest of what would later become the city of Eilat.

Historic telegraph announcing the conquest of the Eilat area by the Negev and Golani brigades. From “Golani – A Family of Soldiers” [Hebrew], p. 38

Golani’s unique spirit was evident as early as 1956, during the Sinai Campaign that took place that year. The “First Breachers” Battalion (the 51st) contained many new immigrants who arrived in Israel without their families and who had nowhere to return to after the fighting was done. At a party that was held to celebrate their release from service following the war, many expressed fears that they had no home to go to, no job or family to support them. Battalion commander Shlomo Alton heard them and got up to say a few words:

“I am telling you, and I don’t care if this goes against General Staff orders – go out and live your lives, try to build something. Those who can’t make ends meet should know, here at the base, you always have a home. The ‘First Breachers’ Battalion will always take you in.”

A Golani soldier at rest following the end of an exercise, 1972. Photo: IPPA, from the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, at the National Library of Israel

Even the color of the brigade beret, which was decided in 1976, expressed the connection between Golani soldiers and the land itself. The earthy brown also represented the founders of the brigade, the farmers who carried hoe and rifle to maintain the young State of Israel.

A few examples from among dozens of books on the Golani Brigade kept at the National Library of Israel

Yitzhak Rabin, who was Defense Minister at the time and who served twice as Prime Minister, described this connection nicely, in a speech he gave in memory of the brigade’s fallen in 1989:

“Every corner of the country is marked with the blood of Golani Brigade soldiers. That is the way of the brigade: to be wherever Golani soldiers are needed, to decide the battle, to bring victory, to give life to the State of Israel.”

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with Golani Brigade Commander, Col. Moshe Kaplinsky, attending an IDF exercise in the Golan Heights, 1995. Photo: Ofira Yochanan, from the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, at the National Library of Israel

The early Golani Brigade was a parallel Zionist microcosm of the young state, an ingathering of the exiles connecting north and south, native-born workers of the land and new immigrants fleeing the European inferno, sabra city kids and recently-arrived newcomers from the peripheral “development towns”. All felt part of the Golani family. The brigade’s commanders understood over the years that this embracing spirit of unity was what attracted so many new recruits – the idea that Golani was more than just a training ground for soldiers and commanders, but a cohesive social unit bringing together all levels of society.

This spirit of acceptance can explain why so many young Israelis seek to enlist in Golani, to this day:

“A new recruit showed up when we were stationed on the northern border, it was freezing, snow. After two weeks, he came and told me he wanted to leave, that he can’t serve in these conditions,” recalled an officer was the brigade deputy-commander in the 1980s. “I told him: ‘You’re important to me, you are irreplaceable, stay. In Golani, everyone is important.’ He went home. Came back. He told me: ‘My whole life, no-one, anywhere – not at home, not at school – ever told me that I’m important. I always felt unnecessary. And I came here, to Golani, and you, a lieutenant-colonel, tell me I’m important. That’s why I’ll stay.’ And he stayed and went on to complete a squad commander course with honors.” (From: “Golani – A Family of Soldiers”, [Hebrew], p. 15)

Golani Brigade commander Gabi Ashkenazi at a brigade ceremony, late 1980s. From “My Golani” [Hebrew], p. 194

Service in the brigade was etched in the minds of many of its former soldiers as a significant experience. The well-known Israeli author Meir Shalev even wrote about it in the IDF magazine, Bamachaneh, when he came to visit a Golani Reconnaissance Unit base, 20 years after leaving the army. Shalev was wounded in a training accident just before completing his service in the elite unit. His writing, full of characteristic humor and wit, expressed the feelings he was left with after his intense time in the military:

“Jeeps dry my throat. I can’t stand to eat any kind of canned food. I hate when it rains on me. I’m ready to strangle any commander who abuses his soldiers. I hate hunters because I know what it feels like to take a bullet. I love travelling with a topographical map in hand.”

And despite all these ornery complaints, Shalev didn’t forget his service in the unit:

“The unit was an entire world. It was good friends, it was struggle and effort, it was also a first real acquaintance with pain and death. Of friends and enemies. At the time, the days of my youth, serving in the unit was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”

From Meir Shalev’s article in Bamachaneh, September 7, 1988. “The equipment is improved, but the face of the unit greenhorn remains the same… that same miserable mixture of an aching, desperate body and a lack of sleep”

The history of the Golani Brigade is strewn with missions which seemed impossible at first but ended in highly significant victories for the State of Israel. At the Tel Mutilla battles north of the Sea of Galilee in 1951, a Golani reserve unit carrying out a training exercise encountered Syrian forces moving through a demilitarized zone. 40 soldiers were killed in difficult battles which took days, at the end of which, the Syrians were pushed back.

In the Six-Day War, Golani forces attacked the fortified position of Tel Faher in the Golan Heights. 34 Golani soldiers were killed, including admired battalion commander Moshe “Musa” Klein, but the outpost was taken by the brown brigade.

Towards the end of the Yom Kippur War, Golani forces stormed the peaks of Mount Hermon. In a long and difficult battle, and after the first effort to take the position failed, the brigade’s soldiers successfully regained control of the snow-capped mountain, which they dubbed – “the eyes of the state”.

In all these cases, and many others, Golani’s sense of pride and heritage stemmed from the belief carried by every soldier in the brigade – their insistence that they could succeed at any mission they were tasked with.

The brigade and its soldiers have paid a heavy price over the years, but nothing has been able to break its spirit. The brigade’s special nature has helped its troops cope with the difficult trials it has faced

The soldiers also frequently make use of dark humor to help deal with the dangers they face:

“One of their habits was to take bets on who wasn’t going to make it back. Sometimes they would sing El Malei Rachamim [prayer for the deceased], meaning me,” recalled Raviv Nir, the Recon unit commander. “I understood that this was a way to release fear and I allowed it. (From: “Night Predators – The Story of Golani Recon” [Hebrew], p. 212).

South we went, to the city among the fields

During the night we entered, crossing the sands,

We sunk to knee-depth, shivering with cold

Then we knew, we had come to the city of strife.

 

Translation of an excerpt from Gaza – a Hebrew poem by Itamar Oren, who served in the Golani Brigade’s 12th Battalion. Oren took part in the raids on Gaza City in the early 1970s and was killed in the Yom Kippur War. From: “Golani – A Family of Soldiers”” [Hebrew], p. 150

 

Some 1450 of Golani’s soldiers have fallen in service over the years, and they are commemorated at the memorial site at Golani Junction in northern Israel. 71 of them were killed on October 7, 2023, when they suddenly found themselves on the front lines. Their heroic efforts helped prevent an even higher civilian death toll. Many more Golani soldiers, far too many, have since fallen in the fierce battles in Gaza. The spirit of the Golani soldiers has not fallen, however, and their strong sense of pride continues to accompany them, wherever they go:

“Ask a soldier where he serves and he will tell you: this or that battalion, this or that company, or this or that corps; ask a Golani soldier where he serves, and he’ll only have one answer: ‘I’m from Golani.’” (From: “Golani – A Family of Soldiers”)

 

The Jewish WWI Soldiers Who Fought in Gaza in 1917

During the First World War, the British Army waged three bloody battles to capture the city of Gaza from the Ottoman Turks. Many of the soldiers who fell were buried in the British Gaza War Cemetery, and among them were Jews with names such as Morris, Wilfrid and Hyman. We set out on a journey to share their stories.

The ruins of Gaza City after its occupation by the British. This photograph is part of the Archive Network Israel project and is made available thanks to the collaboration of Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, and the National Library of Israel

As is the way of world wars, World War I took place not only in Europe where it broke out in 1914, but also in the Middle East and even right here in the Land of Israel. The main role of the British military force stationed in Egypt was to protect the Suez Canal, the vital sea passage between the British colonies in the East and the European continent, via the Mediterranean Sea. In 1916, the British force that fought in the region expanded into a multinational military force under British command called the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF).

In order to keep the Turks and their German allies away from the Suez Canal, and also to step up the pressure on the Turks and thus prevent them from diverting any forces to fight in other arenas of the war, the British decided to advance north towards the Land of Israel – then still Ottoman Palestine.

The British started the year 1917 with their first success along these lines. The city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip was conquered in just one day, on January 9, 1917. But the British command realized it would be difficult to defend Rafah from the Turks, and thus the British Army would have to conquer the largest city in the area – Gaza City itself. In fact, Gaza City was seen as the key to conquering the entire Land of Israel from the south.

But Gaza has never been easily conquered. In March and April 1917, two British attempts to conquer Gaza from the south failed. These costly failures led to the replacement of the EEF’s commanding officer. General Edmund Allenby, who until then had been commanding the Third Army in France, was appointed to the position. His mission was to conquer Jerusalem before Christmas 1917, as a gift of encouragement to the British people whose spirits were low after three long years of war.

Allenby, who would go down in history as the celebrated conqueror of the Holy Land who put an end to 400 years of Ottoman rule, chose a surprising strategy including a series of deceptive maneuvers. He understood that Gaza must be cut off from Be’er Sheva and that the series of outposts connecting the cities must be demolished.  While the Turks were expecting an attack on Gaza, Allenby decided to first capture Be’er Sheva and then surprise the Turks by attacking Gaza from the east, thus hindering their ability to bolster their forces there.

 

The Australian cavalry charge on Be’er Sheva

Zero hour was set for October 27, 1917. The Third Battle of Gaza began with a heavy artillery bombardment of the city using 68 large-caliber artillery guns firing from British and French ships. In the meantime, and as secretly as possible, many forces advanced towards Be’er Sheva, which the Turks had not yet finished fortifying. Apart from the trenches on the southern and western borders, most of the city was without any effective defense. The British surrounded the southwest part of the city with 24,000 soldiers and began shooting and capturing enemy positions.

In the meantime, cavalry units from Australia and New Zealand (ANZAC) and other mounted forces, comprising 11,000 soldiers, headed east of Be’er Sheva. They all reached their destination on the night between October 30-31.

Turkish soldiers prepare for the arrival of the British. This photograph is part of the Archive Israel Network project and is made available thanks to the collaboration of Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, and the National Library of Israel

The British planned to take Be’er Sheva by beginning with a mounted assault by the Australian cavalry from the east.

The attack began at 4:30 PM from a distance of about 6.5 kilometers from the city. The horsemen slowly increased their speed until they charged the Turkish defenders, who were not properly armed and were also in the midst of fleeing the city. The forces of the 4th Light Horse Regiment jumped over the Turkish positions; the soldiers dismounted their horses and began face-to-face combat. Meanwhile the 12th Light Horse Regiment moved on to take over the city. Within a short time, Be’er Sheva had fallen.

The deployment of the forces (British in red, Turkish in green) following the occupation of Be’er Sheva. Amir Kahanovitz Collection

The Third Battle of Gaza

After taking some time to rest and water the horses, Allenby began to advance the infantry and cavalry forces westward from Be’er Sheva. But the Turks still held several positions between Be’er Sheva and Gaza, and there was substantial resistance. One of the challenging targets was the military logistics center at Tel a-Sheria (today Tel Shera near Rahat). After fierce battles, the position and the nearby railway station were finally captured by the brigades of the 60th London Division with the help of additional forces.

In southern Gaza, the Turks had dug in a series of trenches that reached the Mediterranean Sea, with a number of control posts between them. The British forces captured part of their fortifications and went up along the coastline into Turkish territory as far as the village of Sheikh Hassan (today the area of ​​the Al-Shati refugee camp), but they were stopped, and the capture of Gaza was delayed. The Turks realized that Gaza could no longer withstand the shelling and stop the advancing British forces, and on November 6, 1917, they evacuated the city. When the British entered Gaza, they found it abandoned and in ruins. The road north to the Land of Israel was now open. The British forces advanced towards Jaffa, and within a few weeks they reached Jerusalem and liberated it from the Turks without a fight.

Most of the British soldiers who were killed in the battles for Gaza were buried in the military cemetery that was established there after World War I, in the area that is now the Tuffah neighborhood near Saleh al-Din Road. The cemetery has 3,691 graves, most of them belonging to soldiers who fell in the three attempts to conquer Gaza.

 

The Jewish soldiers who fell in Gaza

About one and a half million Jews fought in World War I. Of these, about 50,000 were Jewish soldiers from the British Empire. Some fought in the Land of Israel. 8,600 Jewish soldiers from the British Army fell during the war. It is safe to assume that some of them took part in the battles for Gaza.

As of the writing of this article, IDF soldiers are currently fighting in Gaza as part of the Swords of Iron War. The fierce battles and heavy, heartbreaking losses made me think of the Jewish soldiers of the British Army who fell in Gaza in 1917. I decided to try to delve deeper into some of their stories.

The names of Jewish soldiers who fought in the British Army were collected after the war and published in the British Jewry Book of Honour, which also includes a list of those who fell. About a year ago, I had a conversation over Zoom with a Jewish couple from London who researched the book, how it was edited, and the soldiers listed in it. It is not possible to search for a fallen soldier by date or place of death in the book, so I tried my luck on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

I didn’t know the fallen Jewish soldiers’ names, ID numbers, or the units in which they served, so in the advanced search, I typed in “Gaza War Cemetery” and got 2,696 results. The only method, albeit not a scientific one, for finding a Jewish soldier is by looking for a name that sounds a bit Jewish. I tried “Cohen” first. One result came up: Lance Corporal Frederick Arthur Cohen, who fell during the Second Battle of Gaza, in April 1917, but his name wasn’t listed in the British Jewry Book of Honour. I then tried “Levy” and got one result: Sgt. J. Levy, but his name wasn’t listed in the book either. It’s possible that there are some inaccuracies in the book and that they hadn’t managed to collect the names of all the Jews who had fought. It’s also possible that despite the names, these people weren’t Jewish.

So, I started going through the list of 2,696 names of people buried in the British military cemetery in Gaza.

After a while, I came across a soldier with a Jewish name: Hyman Goodfriend. It’s likely his original name was Haim Godfried. He fell on November 7, 1917, on the last day of the Third Battle of Gaza. The location of the grave is listed by plot, and on the website, you can download an old map of the cemetery. Hyman is buried near the front of the cemetery on the right. His name also appears in the book, but with a different date. The date on the site, as also appears on his tombstone, is probably the correct one.

A few years ago, there was an initiative to collect information about British Jews during World War I. The initiative, called “We Were There Too”, became a website where you can search for names of soldiers, among other things. I found Hyman with a photo of him in uniform and the names of his family members. His date of death was taken from the book and not from the tombstone. He was 25 years old when he fell in battle.

Hyman served in the 17th Battalion of the London Regiment, which was attached to the 180th Brigade of the 60th Division and which fought here in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, among other campaigns. During the Third Battle of Gaza, their mission was to work together with other forces to conquer Tel a-Sheria. The battalion stormed Turkish machine gun positions and it was probably during this battle that Hyman fell.

From the grave numbers, I could see that next to Hyman’s grave is the grave of a Jewish officer named Wilfrid Gordon Aron Joseph. He was killed during the Second Battle of Gaza in April 1917. He was 21 years old when he fell and was survived by his wife.

Private Sam Bernstein, a 40-year-old soldier who worked as a tailor in Leeds, England and served in the 39th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, is buried not far from them. Although buried in Gaza, he was killed in Egypt a year after the battle, in October 1918.

The home page of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, features a large, pastoral image of the cemetery and its well-kept lawns. Above the picture, there’s currently an unsurprising announcement:

“November 2023 – This cemetery is currently closed to visitors.”

At the right end of the photo, there’s a tombstone with a Jewish star.

Photo: https://www.cwgc.org/

You can’t make out the soldier’s name in the picture, but by comparing the picture with the map, I discovered that this is grave no. XIV B 1.

On the Find a Grave website, you can search for graves in about 250 countries, also by grave number. With the help of this database, I found the name of the person who is buried in grave XIV B 1 in the picture from Gaza. His name was Maurice Magasiner and he served in the 11th Battalion of the London Regiment. This battalion was attached to the 54th Division that General Allenby placed near the coastal strip south of Gaza. The soldiers of this battalion moved up along the coast amid heavy fighting with the Turks, until they were stopped at the village of Sheikh Hassan. The Turks responded by shelling the area on November 2, and it appears that that is how Morris fell. He was born in Berdychiv, Ukraine and immigrated to England at the age of 4. He was 21 years old when he died and was survived by his wife.

It’s safe to assume that there are other Jews buried in the British military cemetery in Gaza, as well as the other military cemetery in Deir al-Balah. It’s hard to imagine the last time a Jewish memorial service was held for them.

Many battles have been fought in Gaza since the three fought by the British in 1917. May the Swords of Iron War be the last war in Gaza.