The forgotten ones
A clash between police and inhabitants of the Emek Hefer transit camp in the winter of 1952 led to an uprising that quickly spread to other camps and required the intervention of the prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. The event was apparently Israel's first civil revolt. So why is it missing from the history books?
Only the barking of stray dogs and the howling of jackals greeted the dozens of policemen who crept stealthily through the orchards before dawn. The heavy dew on the leaves of the trees dampened their woolen uniforms, and the mud created by the first winter rains of October 1952 dirtied their boots. Not a living soul was seen in the dark of night around the Emek Hefer ma'abara, or transit camp for new immigrants. There was no power grid, and by midnight, all the candles and kerosene lamps in the huts were out. The oil lamp that had been lit on Saturday evening next to the shack that housed the synagogue had also sputtered out.
Even though many of the camp's inhabitants had not slept a wink all night, none of them dared go outside. They were certain that the police would return at dawn to repay them in kind for the events of the past two days. But they would be stunned by the intensity of the police reaction.
The policemen were also tense ahead of the incursion into the camp. During their briefing at the Hadera station, to which they had been summoned the evening before, immediately after the end of the Sabbath, they heard testimonies from their wounded comrades. The instructions issued by the district deputy commander to the reinforcements that arrived at the station during the night were unequivocal. Before setting out on their mission at 4:30 A.M., a few of the police were handed firearms. The rest received truncheons.
"Suddenly a cop and a soldier came out of the dark. They jumped me and threw me forcefully into the hut," recalls Zadok Malihi, then a boy of 10, who was caught walking, half asleep, to the camp's public lavatory. His friend Meshulam Geter, now 67, also remembers that morning; he is still embarrassed to tell how he soiled his pants in fear when he was seized under similar circumstances by uniformed men.
Immediately after the 200 or so policemen and the auxiliary force of Border Police deployed around the camp and along its paths, two jeeps drove through the main gate and, through loudspeakers, declared a curfew in Hebrew and Arabic. All the camp's 2,500 inhabitants, most of them new immigrants from Yemen, were ordered to remain inside. The troops went from house to house, collected the males - men and youths - and searched under the mattresses and through the tenants' meager belongings. There was no resistance. Occasionally the stifled scream of a woman, the crying of an infant or the muffled sound of a blow was heard.
After the search, all the males, about a thousand, were led to a field where the camp's children played ball games. They were made to line up in rows; anyone who dallied was prompted by a truncheon or a kick to move faster. The same treatment was meted out to anyone who dared complain or protest the violence. Within a few minutes the field was quiet and the police conducted a roll call. At its conclusion 105 men were arrested and taken to the Hadera police station. Everyone else was released on the spot.
By 8 A.M., the last of the security personnel had left the transit camp. The children went to school, the men boarded buses for another day of work and the women stayed behind to tidy up and clean after the events of the night. Quiet returned to the area.
Headlines in the next day's papers reported the curfew in the Emek Hefer transit camp. The public was shocked by testimonies about police brutality in the camp and during the interrogations at the police station. Knesset members and public figures lashed out at the police commanders. Spokesmen for the police lashed back, castigating the inhabitants of the camp and their advocates. The prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, sent his personal representatives to investigate the events. The judicial system also became involved in the affair.
In the days that followed, columnists and commentators analyzed the sequence of violent events, which had begun with a tragic encounter between an elderly Yemenite woman who was looking for weeds to feed her goat and a guard in the fields riding a black horse and accompanied by a brown bulldog named Manara.
The Emek Hefer transit camp was located south of Hadera, adjacent to the present-day local council of Elyachin. The tenants were collected by the Jewish Agency from the new-immigrant tent camps at Ein Shemer, Elyashiv, Rosh Ha'ayin and other places. The majority were from Yemen, although there were also a few families from Iraq and Persia. They were promised employment near the camp - in the fields of local kibbutzim - and told that the camp's huts would be a great improvement over the tents in which they had been living until then.
All the former camp inhabitants who were interviewed for this article remember vividly the constant feeling of hunger that gnawed at them in the camp, nearly 60 years ago. "We all went through three or four transit camps at least before coming here, and the conditions we found in the Emek Hefer camp were truly severe," Malihi, who lives in Elyachin, says. "But in those days we lived a very modest and satisfying life. At school, for example, all the children until the age of 14 were in the same class. Whole families lived in huts or shacks that were three by six meters in area. And everyone had a place and a warm bed. From my childhood I also remember many snakes, mice and scorpions all around, and the toilets, which were always outside, and no running water."
The children of the camp were given lunch at school. Yehuda Shibi, 68, remembers the menu, which rarely changed. "Soup, cabbage and cod. We also drank cocoa and received a slice of bread with red jam or orange jam that was made in the camp. There were always a lot of bits of peel in it." Shibi also remembers the spoonful of cod liver oil given to the children every morning, and he still makes a face when he conjures up its taste. Supper was a family meal. Meat was bought only once a week, and sometimes it was possible to get an old chicken on the black market.
"It was a fenced-in pen of hundreds of hungry people, while all around were orchards with oranges and tangerines and fields of vegetables," Malihi relates. "In that situation you could not realistically expect people not to steal." The thefts that infuriated the farmers, he points out, were intended to address true hunger. "Sometimes, when we passed by a field, we would take a carrot and eat it just the way it was, with the peel and the sand. When we passed a field of onions, we would eat them raw. In the summer vacations we liked going to the sea. That was the only leisure place we could get to, besides the playing field in the camp. We would sleep on the beach for a night or two. On the way there and back, we would raid a watermelon patch. We didn't have money to buy food and we were hungry children. We didn't consider what we did a crime."
Malihi adds that in the camp itself there were also thefts of food. Pots left unattended on a kerosene stove were liable to disappear and be found empty a few hours later, scraped shiny clean. In the summer of 1951, when thefts of farm produce increased, a few members of local kibbutzim and moshavim (cooperative settlements) complained to the Hadera police. They claimed that the thievery had become "commercial" and that some "inhabitants of the transit camp were earning a livelihood from stealing the yield of the land and selling it on the black market."
Police patrols were dispatched to the area, but there are no records in the archives of thieves being caught. The Hadera station could not assign additional manpower to deal with the problem and thefts from the fields continued. Farmers turned to the transit camp director, Mordechai Kosover. He was well-liked by the inhabitants, who called him "our prime minister, rabbi and matchmaker." But when he too failed to get the message across to the hungry children, the kibbutzim hired the services of Moshe Kom, who specialized in guarding fields and orchards.
Guard, horse, dog
Moshe Kom was held in high repute by the inhabitants of the camp and throughout most of the Hefer Valley. Those who were children then recall him as "a fearless guard riding a horse and armed with a pistol, always accompanied by his dog, Manara." Now 85, he still lives in the neighboring village of Hibat Zion. He remembers the episode well, but on the advice of his children declined to be interviewed for the article. Kom's relations with the camp's residents were complex. He had many friends among the immigrants, but if any of them was caught stealing from the fields he was "ruthless," as they put it. In press reports about the events, inhabitants of the camp described how Kom pummeled them or set his dog on them, even sometimes on children and the elderly.
"There was no child in the camp who was spared his blows," Malihi says, laughing. "The fights with him were part of our childhood games. We would run from him between the trails, post guards to warn us if he approached, and sometimes we would taunt him if we felt safe between the fences of the camp. But when he caught one of us - oy vavoy. He would have no mercy. Moshe was a good guard who did his job, but sometimes he went too far with his authority and use of force."
To this day, opinion is divided about whether on the evening of October 25, 1952, when the guard Moshe Kom encountered Razel Gadasi walking along a path among the orchards, he did his job faithfully or went too far with his authority and use of force. What is clear is that their encounter was the spark that ignited the conflagration. According to the camp's inhabitants, as quoted in the press of the time and as they still tell the story today, Gadasi went out in the evening to collect wet weeds as food for her goat, which was tied to the family hut. Like other industrious women who raised a goat or two in the camp, Gadasi gathered twice as many weeds as she needed, so as to feed the goat on Shabbat, too. Some of the newspapers reported that when she ran into Kom, she was carrying five kilograms of citrus fruit in addition to the weeds. Others reported that she had 20 kilos of peanuts. But they all agree that Kom, who remained mounted, scattered what Gadasi was holding with a stick or a club and that his dog attacked the woman and knocked her to the ground. Gadasi returned to the camp crying. Neighboring women helped her into her house and treated the cuts and bruises she had sustained from the dog's bites and from her fall.
The collective memory of Yemenite Jewry had already been scarred by previous attacks on women from the community who were out collecting weeds or twigs. The first report of such an assault appeared in the newspaper Hapoel Hatza'ir (The Young Worker) in 1913. According to the report, a local farmer in the village of Rehovot had caught a Yemenite woman who was collecting dry vines in a vineyard as firewood for the tabun (a clay oven for making bread) and humiliated her. The "Rehovot incident" was followed by reports about the "incident in Petah Tikva," in which an elderly woman was attacked while gathering firewood, the "Hadera incident," in which a teenaged girl was attacked and her jewelry ripped off, and a further series of "incidents" bearing a similar character in other villages.
The soldiers' revenge
The weather was mild that Friday, on the day after the encounter in the orchard between Moshe Kom and Razel Gadasi - to be known henceforth as "the Emek Hefer incident." Many soldiers who lived in the camp were home for Shabbat. After the short Friday workday, some of the men had managed to buy a tin of preserves or a slice of meat as an addition to the Sabbath eve meal. The children were playing soccer next to the huts, women were hanging out laundry.
Ovadia Gadasi, Razel's son, who was doing his army service, also came home for that Shabbat weekend. A soldier in the Israel Defense Forces' fledgling paratroops unit, he is described to this day by former residents of the camp as "charismatic, sturdy and brave." After supper, having heard from his mother about the incident in the orchard, he gathered his three best friends, Yefet Avidar, Yossi Be'eri and Moshe Shahibi, who were also soldiers on weekend furlough. Following a short consultation, they decided to go to the orchards the next morning and take revenge on Kom.
Immediately after the Shabbat morning prayers, the four buddies, equipped with clubs, went to set an ambush for the guard. They also took Zecharia Samina, Ovadia Malihi and Yehuda, the younger brother of Moshe Shahibi, as bait. "I was supposed to wander around on the trails and eat tangerines, in the hope that Moshe Kom would catch me," he says, and describes how the youngsters and the soldiers hid behind trees. But when Kom did not turn up after a few hours of waiting, Gadasi decided regretfully to disband the ambush.
As the group approached the camp, they suddenly saw Kom galloping on his horse in the distance. Like the incident with Razel Gadasi, the encounter between Kom and the four soldiers has a wealth of versions. The children who were playing in the nearby field maintain that in the midst of the brawl, Ovadia Gadasi grabbed Kom's pistol and shot the dog. This was also the account in some of the newspapers. Moshe Shahibi, who was one of the assailants, insists vehemently to this day that "not a shot was fired." Others told how Ovadia Gadasi fell on the dog and pried her jaws open with his hands, until the dog howled with pain. Haaretz wrote: "His assailants did not spare him 'blows below the belt.'" Samina, who was also part of the group, maintains that "Moshe Kom was the one who started and set his dog on us."
After the fight, the dog slunk away, bleeding, the horse was taken into the camp and hitched to the public shower, the saddle was thrown into the latrine and Moshe Kom remained alone in the field, battered and unconscious.
Expelling the police
"At about 2 P.M. we saw a police jeep approaching the camp," Zadok Malihi relates. "It was unusual for a vehicle to enter the camp and stop in the central square on Shabbat. Two policemen got out of the jeep, and to their misfortune the first person they ran into was the camp drunk. His name was Menachem Sharma and he was a mountain of a man and incredibly strong." From their testimonies afterward, it emerges that police sergeant Moshe Friedman and the policeman who was with him ignored Sharma and went to look for Ovadia Gadasi. Sharma walked ponderously to the jeep, railed at the driver for desecrating the Sabbath and, according to the children, muttered all kinds of other things that no one understood. When Sharma noticed that Moshe Kom was also in the jeep, he demanded that Kom be handed over to him, then started to pound the jeep and smashed one of the windows with a stone. He then ripped off one of the vehicle's doors. Kom and the driver jumped out and ran for their lives.
These events were unknown to Sergeant Friedman and the policeman, who went on looking for Gadasi. Sharma started to follow them. On the way he was joined by dozens of residents who had heard he had driven off Moshe Kom and the driver. Within minutes a melee developed around the two police officers. Pushing started, which quickly escalated into blows. Dozens of people from the camp pummeled the policemen from all sides. Sergeant Friedman, realizing that he and his partner were in mortal danger, decided to run. According to the local folklore, Sharma celebrated the expulsion of the policemen from the camp by turning over the abandoned jeep with his bare hands. This is not backed up in the police testimonies.
The terrified policemen phoned in a report about the incident to the Hadera station. According to Haaretz, the station chief, Inspector Fisher, decided to respond quickly. Mustering everyone in the station, he set out at the head of a force of 25 police officers and three vehicles to make arrests in the camp. The three policemen who had been attacked earlier in the day also joined the force. The list of wanted people included Sharma and a few others police had managed to identify.
The convoy of police cars arrived at the camp shortly after 5 P.M., but in short order they too were expelled. The policemen were surrounded by a mob enraged at the desecration of the Sabbath. They were joined by dozens of worshipers who emerged from the synagogue. The police readied their truncheons, and in response residents wrenched planks from the school gate and gave as good as they got. Stones flew through the air every which way. Fisher ordered a retreat, but several policemen were seized and dragged to the camp's central square, where they were beaten by dozens of residents. Women and children threw sand in their eyes, tore their uniforms and pulled the watches from their wrists. Yehuda Shahibi remembers one girl grabbing the police officers' whistles and filling them with sand.
It took fully 20 minutes for all the policemen to escape from the camp by the skin of their teeth. A few of them suffered fractures and many were bruised all over. At least five policemen needed hospital treatment. The next morning, many of the wounded policemen arrived for a mass lineup. The four soldiers who attacked Kom did not wait for the lineup; they fled the camp that night and returned to their units.
"I could not tolerate this situation, because what was at stake was not only the prestige of the police but also authority in the state," the district police commander, Yitzhak Avineri, told the newspaper Maariv in explaining the reason for the mass arrests made on the morning of Sunday, October 26, 1952. But the Israeli public did not have to wait for the afternoon papers in order to find out about the violence. Radio newscasts reported the arrests from early in the morning. The news and rumors spread like wildfire and fanned the flames in dozens of other transit camps around the country.
Wave of demonstrations
The winter of 1951, a year before the Emek Hefer events, is still recalled by many Israelis as one of the stormiest and coldest in the country's history. At its peak, toward the end of December, heavy rain fell relentlessly for some days. Access roads to remote communities were cut off, hundreds of homes were flooded and thousands of people found themselves with no place to go at the height of the storm. The only consolation lay in the rare sight of snow that fell along the coastal plain and cast a pure white cover over the mud and wretchedness of the austerity years.
Among those who retained a very vivid memory of that winter were the 65,000 inhabitants of the country's transit camps. Nearly 10,000 of them were evacuated to nearby communities and IDF bases, after the tents, huts and shacks which they called home were flooded. The children of the Emek Hefer transit camp were also evacuated that winter for 10 consecutive days during the period of the Hanukkah festival to neighboring kibbutzim and moshavim. For them it would remain a sweet memory, notably for "the first shower in our lives with running hot water and a white toilet in a private lavatory, which was actually attached to the housing quarters," Zadok Malihi recalls. The electricity that lit up their temporary shelter also stunned the children, who had previously seen the like only in public places or at weddings.
The state rallied to the aid of the new immigrants. The army mobilized reserve battalions, the lifeguards of Tel Aviv were urged to return from their winter break in order to help prevent drowning, and the air force dropped loaves of bread in isolated communities in the Negev. The minister of labor, Golda Meyerson (later Meir), surveyed the situation in the transit camps in an emergency session of the Knesset. She told the MKs that the government bodies were functioning smoothly and placed the blame for the chaos on the natural elements. She also called on the public to help by volunteering.
At the conclusion of a tempestuous session, the Knesset decided "to send from this platform encouragement and appreciation to the new immigrants in the transit camps." An emergency fund was established for them, with the aim of raising three million pounds in three months. Half a year later, 120,000 pounds had been raised, less than 5 percent of the intended total. The newspaper Davar, organ of the Histadrut labor federation, hinted that the failure was due in part to a competing fund established by Maki, the Israel Communist Party, which raised funds for the children of the camps mainly in Scandinavia, while vilifying "reactionary Zionism, which has caused the situation."
A year later, in October 1952, the autumn skies clouded over again, the first rains fell on and off and the array of promises made by the politicians about proper housing remained just that - promises. It remains unclear whether the outburst was spontaneous or was the result of a guiding hand, but it can be said that the "Emek Hefer incident" was one cause of the wave of demonstrations and uprisings that sprang up immediately in other transit camps.
Late in the morning of that same day, Sunday, October 26, 1952, about 150 inhabitants of the Kfar Sava transit camp set out on a march to the local council building, demanding reasonable housing solutions ahead of winter. The council head refused to meet with them and the demonstrators declared a strike and sat down on the steps of the building, remaining there through the night. The next day their number doubled. Their representatives were finally received by the council head after a young man of 28 burst into the building, breaking a window on the way. His hand was injured and he was arrested by the police. The next day, Davar described him as a "hothead."
That same morning, hundreds of residents of the Hiriya transit camp outside Tel Aviv threw stones and smashed windows and the tile roof of the camp's school. They were protesting a plan to remove some of them from the tents and house them in cabins that had been built three kilometers away, without an access road and with no running water or electricity. It would be better to spend another winter in tents, they said, and remain united in a place where they had already begun to strike roots.
That afternoon, about 30 representatives from the Ir Hamifratz transit camp outside Haifa staged a protest demonstration in front of the Jewish Agency headquarters in the city. They claimed that despite promises made after the previous winter, the access road to the camp had not yet been built and they were afraid they would be cut off from the Haifa-Acre highway when the rains came.
At exactly the same time, dozens of inhabitants of the Rosh Ha'ayin transit camp set out in a convoy of vehicles to Tel Aviv to protest the transfer of a well in the camp to the ownership of the Mekorot Water Company.
The next day, about 1,500 residents of the Beit Lid transit camp east of Netanya joined the wave of demonstrations, demanding proper housing before winter near the present camp, where they had lived and worked for over a year. Similar demonstrations took place in the Sakiya, Rehovot and Tira transit camps and in the workers camp at Mesilat Zion, outside Jerusalem. The protest there was over a dearth of employment possibilities.
Releasing the prisoners
The residents of Emek Hefer who were arrested were taken to the Hadera police station in three trucks under heavy armed guard. After the initial interrogation, 39 suspects remained in detention so that indictments could be drawn up against them. All the others were released by nightfall. Some of the suspects said their interrogation was accompanied by police violence, which they considered revenge for the attack on their colleagues. Those arrested maintained that they had been wronged and decided to deny any involvement in the brawl and not to cooperate with the police until they were allowed to meet with a lawyer or representatives of the transit camp.
The Hadera police started to plan for a lengthy detention of the suspects and ordered extra food rations from the Haifa police, after receiving authorization from the district supervisor of supplies. According to Malihi, a convoy of the prisoners' families, following a tradition practiced in Yemen, set out from the transit camp with pots filled with jahnun, kubana, and other traditional Yemenite foods for the detainees. Police reports stated that "the convoy contributed to the heating of tempers and strengthened the spirit of the camp residents who were awaiting trial."
Ben-Gurion urgently sent his military secretary, Nehemiah Argov, and MK Yisrael Yeshayahu, a member of the Yemenite community from the prime minister's party, Mapai (forerunner of Labor), to collect testimonies at the scene. The two met with the detainees, with the district police commander and with the transit camp committee, which consisted of eight members, including the rabbi, the ritual slaughterer and "one Iraqi," as Ben-Gurion noted in his diary.
The detainees were encouraged by their meeting with MK Yeshayahu. Samina recalls how they all spent the night in one cell, singing boisterously and dancing by candlelight. Their buoyancy and self-confidence in the face of the interrogators were further strengthened by the reports of unrest in the other transit camps.
Ben-Gurion met with Argov and Yeshayahu immediately upon their return to Jerusalem. Summing up the meeting, he recorded in his diary the recommendation made by Argov to have the detainees released immediately "and to be done with the matter as far as possible." However, the police commissioner had a different opinion, which Ben-Gurion also noted in the diary: "Yehezkel Sahar objects to this. Policemen were struck. Doing away with the matter will make a bad impression on the police and will educate the other transit camps to mock the police and the law."
In the end, Ben-Gurion's pragmatism won the day. On Tuesday morning, 22 of the detainees were brought before the Magistrate's Court in Netanya in an expedited procedure. Surprisingly, the police prosecutor asked for leniency for the accused. The same request was made to the judge by the camp's director, Kosover, who promised that such events would not recur. The accused who admitted to assaulting the policemen were fined 15 pounds. Three of the accused who pleaded innocence were sentenced to a fine of 50 pounds or a month in jail. The next day they were all released at Kosover's personal bond; he also promised to pay the fines from the camp's budget. As far as is known, the soldiers who attacked Moshe Kom did not stand trial.
A day later, all the demonstrations in the various transit camps around the country suddenly ended. It is impossible to prove that this was a direct result of the end of the events at Emek Hefer, but all the newspapers expressed amazement at the timing and at the fact that all the demonstrations ended simultaneously. According to Davar, this was proof that members of Maki and Herut (forerunner of Likud) were behind the organized riots, which were "the fruit of lawless instigation." The Maki and Herut newspapers denied this and argued that the uprisings were the result of the distress in each camp.
"The camp detainees became our childhood heroes," Malihi says, and he is backed up by Yehuda Shahibi: "Everyone who took part in the event felt he was riding high in the wake of the episode." Shibi, who also lives in Elyachin, adds: "The adults felt that they had found a way to vent anger that had accumulated in them for a long time against the establishment. We, the children, simply enjoyed the whole ruckus, which broke the routine in the camp."
Following the events, responsibility for the Emek Hefer camp was transferred to the Netanya police. The local council of Elyachin, which was established next to the transit camp in 1955 and whose population consisted mainly of former camp residents, remains under Netanya police jurisdiction to this day, despite its proximity to Hadera. Moshe Kom continued to work as a guard in the fields and orchards. In short order his relations with the camp's inhabitants were restored to their previous status, particularly because "he became far calmer and less aggressive," according to the camp dwellers. Most of them held no grudge against him, and a few of them are still on friendly terms with him.
For several days after the events, police spokesmen and supporters of the camp residents continued to quarrel in the pages of the newspapers. Many of the descriptions of the unrest depicted the Mizrahim - Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin - as exploiters who were dependent on the state's favors; or as Davar's weekly magazine put it, summing up the wave of demonstrations, "Why did it all happen? Because for years we have accustomed ourselves and the new immigrants to think that immigrant absorption means paying unemployment insurance."
Reporters consistently described the immigrants from Arab countries as "primitive," "idlers," "cafe dwellers," "hotheads" and "uncivilized." Some of them added that the immigrants neglect their children, that they are thieves and that they should be grateful for everything the state had done for them. In extreme cases the articles were accompanied by tasteless jokes and a blatantly patronizing attitude toward the immigrants' melancholy situation.
But it wasn't long before the media dropped the story, and the revolt at the Emek Hefer transit camp was buried far from the public consciousness of the fledgling state. As far as is known, with the exception of a footnote in a book entitled "The Mask" by Dr. Aharon Yitzhaki, the events described above were not documented in history books or in studies of the period. So the short-lived first organized Mizrahi uprising were forgotten by the public, though not by those who were involved. W
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