‘The Beasts of the Desert’: My Father’s Journey From the Kibbutz to Israel’s Elite Palmach Fighting Force
This is the continuation of “The Hand of God”: How My Father Survived the Nazi Inspired Farhud
“This is our native land; it is not as birds of passage that we return to it. But it is situated in an area engulfed by Arabic-speaking people, mainly followers of Islam. Now, if ever, we must do more than make peace with them; we must achieve collaboration and alliance on equal terms. Remember what Arab delegations from Palestine and its neighbors say in the General Assembly and in other places, talk of Arab-Jewish amity sound fantastic, for the Arabs do not wish it, they will not sit at the same table with us, they want to treat us as they do the Jews of Bagdad…” ~ David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel ~
From Baghdad to Jerusalem to Haifa
Reeling from what he endured in the brutal Nazi-inspired Farhud, and through much coercion, Abba finally convinced my Safta, or grandmother, to ship him off to live with an uncle in Jerusalem–a rabbi of the strictest order. Upon arrival, however, my father quickly learned that while life may have seemed more secure within the confines of his new home, the peace he long-sought still eluded him. With Abba’s irreverent, mischievous nature and aversion to authority, life with an austere rabbi who barked orders, prodded him awake at 5:00 am each morning to attend Minyan (daily morning prayers recited by a group of ten men), and forced upon him Torah lessons throughout the day, was bound to go over like a lead balloon.
As the days passed, whiled away by religious study that my young father had neither the patience nor
the inclination (nor the Hebrew language skills) for, the Holocaust raged on in Europe. News of the Allied and Axis powers — their defeats and triumphs — would make its way to Jerusalem and to my father’s listening ear. His anxious, unsettled nature was spurred on by the stirring in the air, of the new Olim (Jewish immigrants) making their way back home to Eretz Israel. My father wanted nothing more than to be a part of what he viewed as Tikkun ha’Olam, which in Hebrew means a repairing of the world. In this case, that reparation was manifest through the restoration of the Jewish State.
My great-uncle’s rabbinic plans for my father, needless to say, in no way fit the internal narrative he had built for himself, Abba recalled to me on more than one occasion. Thus, it was not before long the now seasoned escape-artist fled again — this time to a kibbutz in the beautiful coastal city of Haifa.
Kibbutznik meets Palmachnik
During the British Mandate of Palestine, the second “aliyah” — wave of Jewish immigrants to the region spanning from 1904 to 1914 — established the very first kibbutzim. While the concept of the Israeli kibbutz has become relatively familiar to some, few realize what an integral role these communities played in preserving the Jewish State, not just in terms of building its agricultural infrastructure, but in enriching the cause of Zionism and in helping to foster the growth of Israel’s defense forces.
Founded mainly as agrarian, and in some instances industrial collective communities, the kibbutzim sought to fuse concepts of communal life and work with Zionism. Life on the kibbutz was in no way glamorous, but at that time, according to my father, they were effective in their goals. It is ironic that Abba, so much a capitalist throughout his life, recalled his time on the kibbutz with such affection. But in looking back it makes sense, given his patriotic bent. “They were different times,” and the tasks at hand were truly of one’s very survival, he relayed to me on numerous occasions.
“We were all working together towards Israel’s freedom – our freedom.“
Days began at the wee hours of dawn filled with agricultural labor and were followed by Hebrew and other academic studies for the remainder of the morning. Later, those days would come to include rigorous military training, as many of the kibbutzim, particularly a select few in Haifa including the one to which my father belonged, became a base for the Haganah, or underground army of the yishuv (Jewish community) and its progeny, the Palmach, an elite commando fighting unit.
The Palmach (a Hebrew acronym for “striking companies”) was born in 1941 in anticipation of an Axis invasion that was feared to follow a potential British withdrawal from Palestine. The Palmach was Israel’s elite special forces and its symbol depicted a silver sword flanked by two golden ears of wheat. Poignantly, the symbol of its predecessor, the Haganah (and later IDF), is a sword ensconced by an olive branch — a testament to the Jewish people’s culture of life over death and emphasis on peace above war.
With the Palmach’s need to operate underground, from its foundation to 1947, it formed training camps at select kibbutzim. The kibbutz would host a Palmach platoon, providing it with food and necessary resources in exchange for military protection and shared agricultural work. Palmach members were given eight training days, 14 work days and one week off per month in most cases. This self-sustaining system of combined military training, farming and Zionist immersion was called “Hach’shara Meguyeset” and proved to be a great success.
The Palmach Generation
As news of the Haganah and later Palmach brigades spread throughout the kibbutzim, my father longed to volunteer, but by 1947 he was approximately 16 and still shy of the age-requirement for enlistees. Of course that was merely an inconsequential detail to Abba, who felt he had already proven himself a man both during the Farhud and through years of self-reliance on the kibbutz.
It also bears mention that in those days, particularly with Jewish refugees from the Middle East, birth records were often lost or destroyed during exile, so my father could neither prove nor disprove his age with 100% accuracy. Thus, when asked how old he was, my father may have embellished a wee bit, telling the Haganah recruiters he was eighteen. Given his stellar performance on both the physical and academic aptitude screenings, they seemed none the wiser and assigned Abba his rank as a solider of Haganah, and soon after, the Palmach.
Although difficult to imagine in days when supplies and arms were limited, the Palmachniks (a term used to describe one who had joined the specialist unit) were ingenious in their skills of improvisation and general wartime acumen, and in the end, each volunteer received world-class training.
Enlistees like my father were trained in mêlée, small arms and KAPAP (hand to hand combat), topography, squad operations and marine training when applicable. Certain recruits, like Abba, went on to receive advanced training in modalities like sabotage, explosives, reconnaissance, sniping, and operating machine guns and mortars. Platoon training was relentless according to my father, but through the Palmach’s rigorous techniques and fortitude of its leadership, served as the backbone of Israel’s military.
Indeed, much of the Haganah and later Israel Defense Force’s high command comprised Palmachniks including Yitzhak Sedeh, Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon, the latter of whom my father would eventually serve directly under.
For my father, service seemed to come naturally, and as the hard times of an impending war trudged on, time and again he proved himself a resourceful and resilient solider. As a result, in 1948 Abba was given a place in the newly formed elite Negev Brigade, or Hativat HaNegev, which ultimately consisted of four Palmach battalions – 2nd, 8th, 7th and 9th — and carried out some of the war’s most crucial and successful operations.
Yigal Allon, who was serving as Palmach commander at the time, tapped Nahum “Sergei” Sarig to lead the brigade. Sarig divided the Negev into two sectors along the Beersheva–Gaza road and retained command of the northern sector and its 2nd, 7th and 9th battalions, the latter of which was my father’s.
The Ha’yot Ha’ Negev
As the war commenced, the 9th battalion’s jeep company emerged into a very unique, elite motorized commando platoon affectionately (or perhaps not affectionately) dubbed the the Hayot HaNegev, or ”Beasts of the Desert.” Comprised mainly of members from the former Haifa Reserve Forces, those who were not up to the “mission impossible” style raids the Hayot would one day come to be known for, were sent to back to the 2nd battalion. Only the fittest, and bravest were given their chance to prove themselves as a member of the fearless Negev Beasts, and my father was one of those 40 men.
My father recalled how inadequately the beasts were armed, indeed with nothing more than a scant number of assault weapons and improvised jeeps rigged to “sound” like imposing armored tanks, yet these 40 men, perhaps by sheer divine intervention, played a crucial role in liberating the Negev and in capturing Beersheva during Israel’s War of Independence. (These battles will be discussed in Part III of this story, which will be released in January 2013.)
While never fully certain as to the origin of the name, a fellow Hayot veteran once wrote that their moniker derived from the men’s consistently unshaven, ruddy appearance. My father, however, had a different theory.
One evening, before dusk, Abba was en route to his barracks when he happened upon an image that would change his life and the way he viewed war, forever. What was once a group of French “mahals” or foreign volunteers to the Haganah, most of them could not have been older than 20. And all of them had been slaughtered in a fashion that doesn’t, cannot even bear the words. The heinous details are too graphic to relay here, but for the sake of instruction, my father shared with me a highly sanitized version of the horror he saw.
These boys — because that is what they were — had, according to Abba, been tortured to a degree that defied comprehension. More than this, however, was that their bodies had been desecrated beyond recognition. While the barbarism seems senseless, there was a “method” to their murderers’ madness. In the mind of the Egyptian solider, a defaced body, according to Jewish tradition, would be denied a proper Jewish burial.
It was not enough to torment Jews savagely in life, to slay them without honor or respect (and of course with total disregard for presumed codes of war), but to also deny them peace in death. And in this warped reality, the assailants derived joy from their victims’ suffering and what they hoped would be their eternal damnation. This was their mindset, and in truth, it sill is.
All of the experiences my father had had to that point — from the injustice and persecution he endured as a Jew in Iraq to his fight for his and his family’s survival during the Farhud — came flooding back in that very moment and crystallized one eternal truth: not even an animal kills for pleasure, nor is driven by pure evil.
He believed that the humanity he and his countrymen had thus far maintained despite the carnage, must, by war’s gruesome design, give way to the primal in order to survive. Thus men of goodwill, like my father, were forced to fuse their humanity with the need to steel themselves in a way that allowed them to fight and defeat such a savage enemy.
From that day on, Abba became a different kind of solider, he would even say, a beast.
Editors note: An apology to my readers for the delay in releasing this second installment. Please be sure to return in January 2013 for Part III of my father’s story, which will discuss the incredible tale of how he and the Hayot survived unthinkable odds during Operation Ayin and Operation Yoav in Israel’s War of Independence.
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