It Takes a Village

A surprise attack on Israel's army, a massive aerial and ground response that met with strong resistance, hostage-taking, a prisoner swap - this is not a description of the recent war in Lebanon, but the plot of an untold story from 1948 involving the 'Little Triangle' area near Haifa.

On July 14, just two days after the Hezbollah operation on the Lebanon border in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two were abducted, a ceremony was held in the cemetery in Netanya - for the first time in 58 years - commemorating nine soldiers who were killed in the battle for Ein Ghazal. Their company commander at the time, Eliezer Ben Yakir, recalled how they had been killed: They were hit by an Israeli mortar while preparing for an attack. This was the discordant opening note of the last operation to capture the "Little Triangle," consisting of three Palestinian villages located about 20 kilometers south of Haifa, which held out until the second truce of the War of Independence on July 19, 1948, and continued to block the coastal road between Zichron Yaakov and Haifa. Thanks to the truce, the fledgling Israel Defense Forces was able to throw itself into the battle against the recalcitrant villages with the unprecedented support of armored vehicles, artillery and the air force.

Retired colonel Bentz Pridan, the commander of the operation aimed at taking the villages - Ijzim, Jaba and Ein Ghazal - does not remember today that his troops received aerial support. "Cannons - I remember, that yes," says Pridan, now 89, during a conversation in his home in Netanya. "But I don't remember much of that operation. We took part in so many battles then that the details get mixed up in the memory. So if I am not sure, I don't say."

However, three refugees from the villages, who now live in neighboring Fureidis, remember the bombing from the air vividly. "The plane came to bomb at the beginning of the evening," says Suad Darawsha, then a girl of 12 from Ijzim, about the first aerial assault. "One bomb hit the mosque, but did not explode. Sixteen were killed that night." Fat'hi Mohsein, who was seven in 1948, remembers the bodies strewn on the streets of the village. Ali Hamuda, then a boy in Ein Ghazal, remembers aerial bombing every afternoon; he and his family hid in a cave that they dug, "like a bomb shelter."

Massive bombardment from the air? That sounds more like a description of the Israel Air Force's operations today, not in 1948. Surely the bombs were dropped manually from the light planes of the time, such as Pipers. But the military documents uncovered by Efrat Ben-Ze'ev for her doctoral thesis six years ago at Oxford University tell a different story. The aerial attacks on the three villages began during the "Ten Days" - July 9-18, 1948 - of battles between the end of the first truce (July 8) and the start of the second (July 19), and went on for two weeks. On the evening of July 12, for example, planes dropped 420 kilograms of explosives and incendiary bombs on Ijzim. The village was bombed again on July 17, and on July 19, as the second truce took effect, it was bombed twice.

The next day the fighting on most of the fronts waned and the nascent IAF was able to send in its heavy aircraft, a Dakota and three Flying Fortresses, which had been smuggled out of the United States and had arrived in Israel five days earlier. On that day the planes dropped four tons of bombs on the three villages. "Great destruction to property was caused and there was much loss of life," the intelligence officer of the Northern Front headquarters reported.

Rare praise

There was a good reason for the three villages to be the objects of so much attention. Indeed, their combat capability earned them rare praise in Israeli war literature. The operational plan to capture the villages, cited in the history of the Alexandroni Brigade, describes "the enemy" as follows: "800 bearers of arms, including regular Iraqi units, officers and a number of deserters from the British Army. The enemy is armed with rifles and machine guns, [and] 2- and 3-inch mortars. They also have about three armored vehicles and one field gun. The enemy's level of training is high, their fire discipline good. The enemy maintains wireless communications and runners with the 'Big Triangle,'" a reference to the headquarters of the Iraqi army mission in Jenin.

Ben-Ze'ev - an anthropologist whose doctoral thesis deals with the memories of refugees from Tira, Ein Hud and Ijzim - examined the military documentation of the time in order to compare them with the oral testimonies she collected. She did not find support for this description of the enemy's prowess. No Iraqi soldier took part in the defense of the Little Triangle, and at an early stage of the campaign the villages' defenders expelled the dozens of irregular Palestinian troops who had come to assist them.

All around, villages fell one after the other to the Israeli army. Waves of refugees told of defeat at the hands of superior forces and of large-scale casualties, and there were rumors that a massacre had been perpetrated at the nearby village of Tantura. However, the defenders of the Little Triangle refused to be caught up in the mass flight. "Only in a few places do we find exceptions: villages and communities that hold out in this sea of panic," the official "History of the Haganah" (the forerunner of the IDF) states. "Militarily, then, we have to note the tenacity of the villages of Tira, Ein Ghazal, Ijzim and Jaba in the Carmel region south of Haifa. These villages held out long after Haifa fell, and moreover their residents continued to harass the Jewish transportation to Haifa and forced it to move to Wadi Milek. Tira was captured by the IDF only on July 16, 1948. The other three villages, which were dubbed the 'Little Triangle,' were not captured until July 25, after they had repulsed two IDF assaults and were placed under siege. About 800 of their people broke through and reached the Arab lines in Wadi Ara with their weapons."

Flattering descriptions appear also in other official documentation about the history of the War of Independence: "A number of daring and stubborn Arab villages still remain on the Carmel," and "Two previous efforts undertaken by the IDF to silence the villages of the 'Little Triangle' ended in failure and led them to raise their level of preparedness and infused them with high morale. The three villages fought heroically until they fell." But the official histories shroud the circumstances in which the villages were finally captured.

Operation Policeman

The last operation to take the Little Triangle was launched a few days after the start of the second truce. During the "Ten Days" between the two truces, the IDF succeeded in enlarging the area under its control significantly, capturing large chunks of the territories which had been allotted to the Arab state under the terms of the United Nations Partition Plan of November 29, 1947. Now the army's superiority on the field of battle was expressed not only in the number of its troops, but also in their armament, and outside the Negev almost all of the area that had been allotted to the Jewish state was under Israeli control.

Deep in this area, between Haifa and Tel Aviv, only one pocket of resistance remained. The attempt to eliminate it on the eve of the truce failed. The elders of the three villages began negotiations that would lead to a surrender, but the fighters intervened and persuaded them that they could hold out until the truce took effect. They were right.

"During the night," an intelligence officer reported the next day, "our forces attacked Jaba and Ein Ghazal. The villages resisted and our forces returned to their previous outposts. The Haifa-Tel Aviv road is still blocked to traffic."

The Little Triangle thus remained a bone in the throat of the leadership, which decided to remove it even if this entailed violation of the truce terms. At the behest of prime minister David Ben-Gurion, the operation was portrayed, for external consumption, as a "police operation" to ensure the free passage of traffic on the Haifa-Tel Aviv road, and it was therefore called Operation Policeman (Mivtza Shoter). As cover, two platoons of Military Police recruits that were doing basic training were called up. According to the "IDF Encyclopedia," the commander of the Military Police, Lieutenant Colonel Danny Magen, who complained that the new recruits didn't even know how to use their weapons yet, later related that the head of the Manpower Branch, Major General Moshe Zadok, reassured him and explained that the men would not see combat: "Your troops have to do a fiction [sic] and deceive the UN."

In fact, the Military Police recruits found themselves in battle near Ein Ghazal and retreated after taking losses. "That was an attempt by the Military Police to harass the villages," says former MK Amnon Linn, who two months later became the commander of the Carmeli Brigade, which set up an ambush between Jaba and Ein Ghazal. "But the intention was not to conquer [the villages]: It was to stop the sniping at the Jewish traffic on the road. There was no order to capture - there was no conquest in the three villages. The residents evacuated them by order of the Iraqi army, and our forces found them almost empty, with only a few elderly people here and there."

Linn is now writing a book about the period, but his information about Operation Policeman does not correspond with the facts that appear in the military documents. It was a full-fledged operation, in which forces from three different brigades - Alexandroni, Carmeli and Golani - were massed with the support of armored vehicles, artillery and air power.

"We did not view this as a violation of the truce," Major General (res.) Dan Even, the commander of the Alexandroni Brigade at the time, wrote in his book "Years of Service." "In our eyes it was a 'police action,' which was intended to mop up the irregular forces in an area that was allotted to the Jewish state in the UN partition resolution." The truce made it possible for the IDF to allow its forces to receive unusual assistance.

"In Operation Policeman the attacking force received support such as we had not yet known," Even writes. "In addition to our supporting weapons, we had at our disposal six 65-mm. field guns and two 120-mm. mortars, and at certain stages of the battle our people received impressive support from our fledgling air force, which I saw operating so vigorously for the first time. On the second day of the battle the air force carried out effective attacks on the outposts south of Ein Ghazal, where enemy resistance was extremely tough."

List of suspects

What was so special about these three villages? Dr. Ben-Ze'ev, who teaches at the Ruppin Academic Center and is a researcher at the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, notes that the three agreed from the outset to cooperate and that their cooperation went on for months. They were relatively developed villages, with good ties to Haifa. In the Haganah Archive Ben-Ze'ev found intelligence files from 1942 about the villages of the Little Triangle, containing an impressive amount of detailed information about them: the materials used to build their houses (stone and concrete), the number of springs and wells, the crops they cultivated, family and party distribution, and more.

Ijzim, for example, was a village of 3,500 residents and had a school with 100 pupils, as well as 19 grocery stores, 13 clerks and teachers employed by the Mandate government, and 17 policemen. Appended to the report was a list of 67 residents who were described as having been "active in the 'events'" - as the Jewish side called the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 (though in the report on Ein Ghazal 28 people are said to have "taken part in the revolt") - including two company commanders, one of whom was still "wanted" and was "wandering around in the vicinity of the villages together with three armed men, perpetrating robberies." Two of the 67 were sentenced to death by the British and hanged, 13 others "were killed by the [British] Army."

Another appendix consisted of a "list of the suspects in Ijzim" and contained 98 names. One of them was Mahmoud al-Madi, a landowner who was described as a "nationalist lawyer, commander of the gangs in Ijzim."

In her article, "The Palestinian Village of Ijzim in the 1948 War: Forming an Anthropological History Through Villagers' Accounts and Army Documents" (English-language text at palestineremembered.com/Haifa/Ijzim/Ijzim.html), which was published four years ago in "The New Orient," and was based in part on her doctoral thesis, Ben-Ze'ev presents her interviewees under fictitious names, but it is easy to identify attorney Mahmoud al-Madi as the person she calls "Sharif."

"Sharif was a lawyer. Originally from Ijzim, he studied in Damascus and, upon his return, opened an office in Haifa. He owned a large plot of land adjacent to Ijzim from the east, which he turned into a successful orchard known as Al-Bayyara, located near the spring of Maqura. During the Arab Revolt, in 1937, an attempt to murder him" - apparently by Arab rivals - "caused him to leave for two years and go to Beirut with his family. When he returned, he discovered that the rebels had destroyed his home and trees. Nevertheless, he chose to rebuild his farm, spending weekdays in Haifa practicing law and the weekends at his Maqura farm. Through his profession he established close links with British officials as well as with influential Jews. On account of these [connections], he served as a mediator during the war, trying to achieve an agreement between Ijzim and the Haganah."

The historian Yoav Gelber, in his book "Independence Versus Nakba" (Hebrew, 2004), devotes a short chapter, entitled "Mahmoud al-Madi - Saint or Demon?", to the person he calls "the effendi of Ijzim." According to Gelber, Al-Madi "conducted negotiations with the Haifa District headquarters with the aim of ensuring his control over the villages, until the results of the war should become known, and then they would be annexed to the victorious side."

After the war, Gelber writes, when Al-Madi complained about the damage done to his property during the battle in Ijzim, the minister of minority affairs, Bekhor Sheetrit, came to his defense, describing him as "a friendly Arab who in the past carried out useful services." A senior Foreign Ministry official, Yaacov Shimoni, said in reaction that "Al-Madi is not so loyal and devoted," whereas another official explained to the foreign minister at the time, Moshe Sharett, that Al-Madi was neither saint nor demon, but "is partly the one and partly the other."

"He worked for both sides," says Linn, who knew Al-Madi during the period when he was head of the Arab Department of Mapai, the forerunner of the Labor Party, in the north.

Abductions, exchanges

Prof. Gelber does not mention the part played by Al-Madi in the affair of the Israelis who were taken captive and held in Ijzim. Their exact number is not known, but the names of at least four of them are mentioned in army documents. Ben-Ze'ev's interviewees also referred to them. During all the months of the incidents on the roads, she writes, abductions took place and in their wake lengthy negotiations were held and prisoners were exchanged.

The most famous prisoner, whose name is cited to this day by the refugees of Ijzim who live in Fureidis, was the engineer Peretz Etkes, who in the Mandate period managed the Public Works Department in Haifa. On July 6, 1948, as the first truce drew to a close, an Artillery Corps vehicle was fired upon next to the village of Jaba, and its occupants returned fire. Afterward a convoy of 16 cars from Haifa arrived at the same place and was also attacked. One truck was burned and its wounded driver, apparently Zvi Kupershtock, was taken prisoner. Shortly thereafter, Peretz Etkes and his wife happened by the spot, in a taxi. Both they and the taxi driver were seized. The prisoners were taken to Al-Madi's home in the Maqura farm. Yaffa Etkes, whose leg was broken, was released that same day and transferred by mule to the Druze village of Isfiya on Mount Carmel, from where she was taken to a hospital in Haifa.

One of Al-Madi's sons, who is called "Shafiq" in Ben-Ze'ev's article, told her that a group of Iraqi soldiers arrived one day to take the prisoners. "My father refused. He said to them, 'You cannot take them. These are our prisoners. We are going to exchange them for our prisoners that the Jews took.'" After his release, Etkes corroborated this account, and related also how the Arabs deployed for defense: when an operation begins the fighters are summoned with whistles and disperse to their fortified positions, which are protected by sandbags.

The Israeli negotiator was attorney Yaakov Salomon, from Haifa. In his memoirs, "In My Way" (1980), he described the measures that were taken to obtain the captives' release: "Etkes sent me, through a Druze acquaintance, letters urging his rescue. I also received letters from Kupershtock and his friends calling for their immediate rescue, for fear they would be executed. Having no other choice, we were forced to take prisoner eight Arabs from villages in the area, as hostages."

On July 8 the IDF attacked Ijzim in what was termed a "punitive action," in the wake of the atta cks on Israeli transport vehicles. The attacking force encountered resistance and sustained many casualties, and when the soldiers saw that they were cut off on three sides, they retreated, leaving behind two of their number who had been killed. Ben-Ze'ev quotes the Israeli officer who documented the failed attack: "The enemy was quick to attack, well commanded with an offensive spirit and tendency to assault."

Deathly fear

Etkes and the taxi driver were released after the attack, on July 10. Kupershtock, wounded, remained alone in captivity and genuinely feared for his life, as emerges from two letters that he sent to attorney Salomon, which Ben-Ze'ev found in the State Archives. "You should know that the situation here is very tense and I am liable to pay with my /life any minute," he wrote in his second letter, dated July 15, in which he tried clumsily to transmit intelligence information: "Our airplanes dropped many bombs ... and there were many casualties ... They already wanted to set me up [namely, get rid of me], only 'Mohammed Effendi' wouldn't let them." He adds that the latter had then agreed that, in return for one Arab prisoner held by the Jews, he would release Kupershtock. He was released on July 16, eight days before the advent of Operation Policeman.

At the beginning of the 1950s Etkes found a job in the United States. His daughter, Tina Etkes, who lives today in Los Angeles and was a child in 1948, says she did not hear about the events of that day until the evening, when her mother was taken to hospital. Her father, she says, revealed almost nothing about his period in captivity. "It was an unpleasant time - he did not want to talk about it. His good luck was that there were more sanguine people in the government than there are today," says Etkes. "Secret negotiations were held to exchange prisoners, and the Arabs got exactly what they demanded."

Kupershtock, the truck driver, was also reticent about telling his son what he underwent as a prisoner. Menahem Kupershtock, a resident of Nahariya, didn't even know about the two letters that his father sent to attorney Salomon. "The truck belonged to my father, and during the war it was co-opted by the Palmach" - the commando unit of the Haganah - he notes. "During that period he brought supplies and ammunition from Tzrifin [an army base near Ramle] to a Palmach camp at Rosh Pina. On one of those trips, after Atlit, the truck hit a mine and burned and my father was thrown out through the window. He said he was brutally beaten by the Arabs who caught him."

After his release, and after the area had been captured, Zvi Kupershtock took his son to see the burned truck one Shabbat. But they did not go to the village of Ijzim, which was left partly intact, albeit empty, after the war and in 1949 was populated by new immigrants from Czechoslovakia, who established the moshav (cooperative farming village) of Kerem Maharal. To this day, Menahem Kupershtock has not visited the place where his father was held captive in 1948.

Nearing the end

Ben Zion Pridan, the commander of Operation Policeman, does not remember hearing about the affair of the prisoners. Following publication of a study by master's student Teddy Katz at the University of Haifa, Pridan, who commanded the conquest of Tantura, has been involved in recent years in the legal battle mounted by the Alexandroni Brigade Association to refute allegations in Katz's study of a massacre perpetrated by its troops in the village. Refugees of the Little Triangle also claimed that there had been a massacre of residents in their area, but in this case United Nations representatives carried out an immediate comprehensive investigation and rejected their accusations unequivocally.

Pridan does not remember the air support his forces received in Operation Policeman. Wondrous are the ways of memory. He does remember well the Flying Fortresses, like those who bombed the villages on the eve of the operation, and remembers them from the inside. In World War II he served in the U.S. Air Force and commanded a maintenance team of these planes in Britain; as part of his duties he also took part in a number of bombing missions in Nazi-occupied Europe.

"We had four cannons on wheels, Napoleonchiks," Pridan recalls. "They made a lot of noise. The mortars were more reliable."

Eliezer Ben Yakir, a company commander in the battle for Ein Ghazal, says that one of these mortars was responsible for most of the Israeli casualties in the operation: On the staging ground of the operation a shell accidentally slammed into soldiers in one of his platoons. Seven were killed instantly and all the rest were wounded (two died of their wounds a few days later).

Their nighttime assault was repulsed. "After midnight," the brigade's history records, "Ein Ghazal, Ijzim and Jaba were bombed from the air and the artillery launched a barrage against them." The Golani company that was sent to seize an outpost overlooking Jaba retreated in the face of fire by its defenders. The company of the Carmeli Brigade that was sent in the direction of Ein Ghazal also encountered resistance: "At dawn it turned out that it was in inferior positions and it stopped 'playing' in the operation." A company from the 33rd Battalion of Alexandroni seized the wrong hill and in the morning succeeded in pushing back "an assault by local Arabs, about 50 in number."

A column of armored vehicles that was sent north from Fureidis in the morning to open the road to Haifa encountered roadblocks, came under fire and was unable to get past the section of the road opposite Ein Ghazal. The Israeli forces prepared for a new assault, but it became apparent that the battle was already over. When the Iraqi troops failed to respond to their calls for help, the Palestinian combatants decided to break the siege. According to official documentation of the history of the War of Independence: "The young people and those with arms left the villages and breached themselves a path toward Wadi Ara. They emerged at dusk in convoys, with 10-15 people in each convoy. Some of the retreating fighters ran into a Guard Corps ambush and a trap set by a Carmeli Brigade company in Wadi Milek, and were killed or captured. Nevertheless, about 800 people with all their light equipment, 810 rifles, about 20 Bren machine guns, cattle, sheep and beasts of labor, reached Arara. The heavy equipment was buried in the earth and in caves, according to Arab sources. The relay station by which they were able to announce the retreat was destroyed."

Many of the residents of the villages who fled from the bombs and hid in the surrounding hills or found temporary shelter in Fureidis and in the Druze villages on Mount Carmel were not allowed to return to their homes. The residents of Ein Ghazal and Jaba very soon had no place to return to: Israel razed both villages to the ground. Fifteen families remained in Ijzim, a few of them in the Al-Madi farm at Maqura, and they were joined by a number of families that had hidden in the area. The rest, more than 8,000 people (this number apparently includes also refugees from nearby villages who joined them) massed in areas controlled by the Iraqi army, where they were registered by staff from the UN Truce Supervision Organization.

After refuting the allegations of a massacre (the organization reported 62 killed and 63 missing in the three villages) and after rejecting Israel's claim that this was a policing operation which it was not authorized to deal with, the organization found that Israel had violated the cease-fire by its attack in the Little Triangle. It described in terms of aggravating circumstances the way that the Israeli army had forced residents to evacuate their homes and had "systematically" destroyed two of the villages. According to the truce supervisors, there was no proof that the residents of these villages had attacked the main Tel Aviv-Haifa road after the start of the second truce. The supervisors stated, moreover, that the Israeli army had attacked despite "the offer of the Arab villagers to negotiate."

Lying to the UN

In the wake of the conclusions of the truce team, the UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, sent a sharp letter to Foreign Minister Sharett, demanding that all the residents of the three villages who had resided in them before the second truce went into effect be allowed to return immediately and live peacefully there. He also demanded that the Israeli government rehabilitate and compensate them for the damage done to their homes during and after the Israeli assault.

In the General Staff, Major Yehoshafat Harkabi, then the liaison officer to the Foreign Ministry (and later director of Military Intelligence), drew up a "proposal or a reply to the UN authorities." In a handwritten note which he attached to the proposal, he commented, "At my request, prisoners in Camp No. 1 (in Galilee) were interrogated on this matter ... Some of the prisoners testified that there were no Iraqis in Ein Ghazal and they referred at length to the bombings, which we must obscure."

In his draft reply Harkabi followed the rule that the best defense is a good offense, and wrote, in short: The Arabs started, the Arabs are to blame. "It is not the case that these villages were pursuers of peace and did not attack traffic," he wrote. "During the first truce there were no few cases of interference with traffic and firing at cars that passed by these villages." The main road from Haifa to Tel Aviv had become unsafe for regular civilian traffic, Harkabi stated. "We did not bomb the place after the start of the truce," he lied. "Before that we bombed it symbolically and as a warning." And, in sum: "The villages were disturbers of order. The majority of their residents left them before we entered. We expelled only the lawless among them. It was a police operation and done with the knowledge of UN headquarters. The destruction was as a means of security and in accordance with the laws of the land." It follows "that the fate of these villagers cannot be different from that of the rest of the refugees."

And so it was. The fighters from the Little Triangle, who reached Jenin and said they wanted to go on fighting, were disarmed by the Iraqi army. When the refugees' hope of a speedy return home faded, they became restive; to calm them they were offered the chance to spend time in Iraq. Many acceded to the offer, others stayed in the refugee camp that was established in Jenin and the rest dispersed, most of them moving to Syria and Jordan.

Those who remained in Israel fared no better. Dr. Ben-Ze'ev found documents attesting to three expulsion operations - she calls them "transfers" - of the Little Triangle refugees from the Druze villages on Mount Carmel to the West Bank. Suad Darawsha remembers how, after living with her family for many months in Ijzim, "house to house with the Jews of Kerem Maharal," all the Arabs who remained in the village were forced to move to the Maqura farm, where they worked for Al-Madi. In 1952 they were evacuated from there as well.

Back on the farm

Attorney Maher al-Madi, Mahmoud's son, was a boy at the time. He remembers the difficulties of living on the farm, which was under the supervision of the Military Government, so every time someone wanted to leave authorization was required. Finally his father concluded a land exchange agreement and the family moved to Haifa. Only one family of fellahin remained at Maqura, working its small plot of land, for which it had to wage a protracted legal battle. Ali Yunes, who was a mechanic of generators and water pumps on the Al-Madi farm, died in 1993, aged 94, and now only his widow and his daughter live in the house, with electricity from a generator and water supplied by a small spring in the yard.

The residents of Kerem Maharal continued to live in the Arab stone houses until the early 1960s, when the Jewish Agency built them new homes nearby, and most of the old houses were demolished. Only a few of the original structures still stand, including the school, which is now a synagogue, the abandoned mosque and the Al-Madi family home, which was renovated and now houses an art museum.

Attorney Maher al-Madi has not visited Maqura for many years. "I just can't do it," he says.

In contrast, Ali Hamuda visits the ruins of his village, Ein Ghazal, every week, and tends to the tomb of his grandfather, Sheikh Shehadeh - the only structure still standing, located along the path leading to the cemetery of Moshav Ofer. The view here is spectacular and the Jewish National Fund has created a hiking route through the remains of the village. The sign there says, "between springs and groves."W