The Palmach fighters who rested in the Ben-Shemen Forest after the battle for the liberation of Lod during the War of Independence in July 1948 could not have imagined that the moment immortalized by military photographer Boris Carmi would become a historic item. The pretty young girl in the center of the picture was the communications officer of the third battalion of the Yiftah Brigade of the Palmach. She was exhausted from the fighting, worried about the friends who had been lost and wondering how many more of her comrades would lose their lives as the war continued.
Her hair was covered by a kaffiyeh whose fringes hid her first lieutenant rank while a plaster on the right side of her forehead hid the wound she had received from a shrapnel piece that hit her during the fighting with the Arabs. The officer, Ziva Halevi, now Arbel, is pictured leaning on a tree trunk and looking at the ground. She is the only one of the members of her battalion who is carrying a weapon - a revolver she received in the Palmach - in the picture.
During the lull in the fighting, some of the fighters from the battalion amused themselves near a painter who was sketching them before they returned to the battles in the Latrun area. A few of them stood alongside him, looking at the sketch, while others sat close by, laughing.
Ziva remembers only that the artist left a few minutes later. She also did not notice the photographer, Carmi, who aimed at the group with her in the center. She found out about the photograph many years later when her children went on a school trip to the Haganah Museum and noticed their mother in the picture. The picture has become one of the best known visual relics of the War of Independence. It is on show at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem alongside a giant picture of David Ben-Gurion declaring the establishment of the state.
Halevi used the revolver in the picture several times during the fighting. She does not know whether she hit her targets since most of the battles took place at night.
Not a feminist
Ziva Arbel is now 82 and has three children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, with another on the way. In retrospect she understands that she was a symbol of determination and perseverance when she served in the Palmach - what today would be called a celebrity.
But that was not her intention. She did not do it to prove a point, not even a feminist one.
"I was myself. That's all," she says from her Savyon home, 61 years later, alongside her husband Itamar Arbel.
"This was not a feminist declaration or some kind of affirmative action, but a demand for equality that was first and foremost for equality of duties," wrote Natan Shaham in "Hana'ara im Ha'ekdach" ("The girl with the revolver") - her autobiography which he edited. She came to Palestine from Turkey on her own, with the youth immigration and was full of idealism and the desire to help build the country. From her point of view, it was only natural that she should join the Palmach.
Even from a distance of more than six decades, her memory is still clear.
Just as she had not known she was being photographed in Ben-Shemen Forest, she did not know she was again photographed by Carmi three days later, in Rafilia, an Arab village near Latrun.
She was drawing water from a well on a hot summer's day and then was shown drinking from a clay pitcher. The spout of the pitcher was broken and Ziva did not know how to drink from it by holding it up, as her male comrades had done before her, but she was so thirsty that she simply put it to her mouth and took long gulps.
"The water was so good," she recalled. "It was clean and cold and I was thirsty, so I drank a lot."
A few weeks later, she was in a different place, in the village of Khata where the battalion headquarters were. She remembers it as one of the filthiest places she saw during her service. "We were eaten alive there by fleas," she said.
In order to escape the fleas, she and her comrades sat on a van. Then one of the men came excitedly up to her, to show her her picture in the army magazine Bamachaneh. On the back page was the picture of her drinking from the jug, with the sexist caption, "Who's jealous of the pitcher?"
"We all laughed," says Ziva. "Boris took the pictures without my knowledge, both of me drawing the water and drinking it. Of course the whole battalion spoke about it."
A while later, the songwriter Avraham Halfi paged through the magazine and saw her picture. He wrote his poem "Hakad" ("The Pitcher") about it and the composer, Mordechai Zeira, put it to music, sung by Shoshana Damari.
She heard about the song a few months later when she was with her army comrades in Beit She'an. The fighting had calmed down and two representatives were sent to Tel Aviv to learn new Hebrew songs and bring them back to the front.
"On a Friday night, we had a kabbalat Shabbat ceremony and then the people who came back from Tel Aviv told us about the song that Halfi had written," she said. "That was the first time I heard about the song inspired by my picture, and the rest is history. For my part, I simply wanted to drink water but it turned into a song. Later we all went to hear Shoshan Damari at Habima (theater in Tel Aviv) and she sang the song. I was a little embarrassed. All the members of the battalion clapped and cheered excitedly and she didn't understand why. So they explained to her that the subject of the song was sitting in front of her."
One woman among men
Even today when she hears the song on the radio, she recalls those days. The song was played often thanks to the composer Gil Aldema, who served under Ziva in the Palmach as a wireless operator, (where he lost a leg when he walked over a mine).
"Today the song is heard much less frequently," she said. "Even at the beginning, I didn't think it was something special; it is not very catchy and not everyone was crazy about it, but it is sung from time to time."
When asked why Carmi - "the first military photographer" - photographed her, she laughs. She says he stated in a radio interview later that she had beautiful legs. That annoyed her.
"He photographed me simply because I was there," she said "The only girl among a lot of men, 136 men to be exact."
Before his death seven years ago, Carmi said in an interview with Neri Livneh in Haaretz, "I always photographed girls, all my life. I am pro-women and anti-men. I don't like photographing guys. Of course, if there is an interesting head like that of Martin Buber, that is something else," he said.
Ziva Arbel's eyes mist over even today when she recalls the dozens of her comrades who fell in the fighting in which she participated as a communications officer. She recalls the conquests of Safed and Lod, and the infiltrations into Egyptian territory in the Negev, and the bullets and cannons that flew over her head. One time, in fighting opposite the Gaza Strip, she was almost killed when a bullet hit the wireless equipment on her back. "My luck was that the battery of the apparatus covered two thirds of its surface and the bullet hit it. The amazing thing was that the equipment still worked," she said.
The headlines about her in the local press at that time were no better than those of today.
One article was headlined "And she is so pretty", while another, about the young officer who had come to Palestine alone, read: "The cutie from the Palmach". The newspaper Davar wrote, in a play on words in Hebrew, "Ziva doesn't disappoint."
"During my entire service, I never asked for, or received, a favor," she said. "When I went to officers' course, they said I wouldn't last for even a week because it was so difficult, and it indeed was. A lot of men dropped out but I finished with distinction."
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