The Battle Still Rages

The surrender of Israeli forces at Nitzanim in the War of Independence continues to seethe and resonate as though it had happened yesterday.

Avihai Becker
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Avihai Becker

In the War of Independence Yitzhak Pundak was the commanding officer of the Givati Brigade's 53rd Battalion. He was responsible for four border kibbutzim - from west to east, they were Nitzanim, Negba, Gat and Galon. The Egyptian Army captured Nitzanim, which lies just east of the Mediterranean, near Ashkelon, on June 7, 1948, in a battle which many in Israel saw as a humiliating surrender. Thirty of the kibbutz defenders were killed in the battle, and 105 surrendered and were taken to Egypt as prisoners of war. Only four succeeded in getting through the Egyptian lines and escaping.

Forty-three years later, the secretariat of Kibbutz Nitzanim, which was re-established after the war, received a letter stating: "My 80th birthday is approaching and I thought to myself that if in 1948 I didn't succeed in properly defending Nitzanim, which was fighting for its life, isolated and forgotten by all, it would be deserving, at least, if, when my day comes, I will lie by the side of the soldiers who died in the cruel battle. Yours always, Y. Pundak." The response was not long in coming: "Dear Yitzhak, It is an honor for us to reply positively to your request relating to the final resting place, together with your wife, in the kibbutz cemetery." Two years ago, Masha Pundak was in fact buried at Nitzanim. The plot next to hers is reserved for her husband. His plot is a meter and a half from the edge of the mass grave where the victims of the battle for Nitzanim were laid to rest. To join the two sites after his death, Pundak carved out a stone path, "so it will be easy for me to meet with them, if there is a next world," he says. He is driven by grief, he discloses, or is it perhaps the pangs of conscience that attack him relentlessly, because perhaps he could have done more to prevent their deaths?

"The reason is that I wasn't firm enough then," Pundak says as he opens the gate to the cemetery. "When I came to the brigade commander, Shimon Avidan, and informed him that Nitzanim was about to fall, the brigade command post had four `Napoleonchiks' [26mm cannons] and a battery of 120mm mortars that could have easily been moved up to fire at the Egyptians who were attacking the kibbutz. That wasn't done. I started to shout, they explained to me why the weapons weren't being used, and instead of cracking their heads open, I was silent."

Effective blessing

Pundak, a retired brigadier general, lives the Nitzanim story with all his might and all his soul. At 91, he is as vigorous, sharp and trenchant as someone half his age. His memory is enviable, his forelock still shifts back and forth, he has 20:20 vision - he doesn't even need glasses for reading. His schedule, especially now, just ahead of Independence Day, is as full as that of a CEO. An amazing person. Every month, and this has become a tradition, he gets a call from David Uzari, who was a soldier in the battalion, who asks, "How are you doing, sir?" He's been doing it for years.

"Why do you call?" Pundak once asked him, astounded at the consistency. "I call because once a month I do a blessing for you in the synagogue and it's important for me to know if it helps," the private told him. To which Pundak replied gratefully, "So far it's worked really well, just keep up the good work."

It's doubtful whether there is another episode in the entire War of Independence that is as emotionally charged and as traumatic as the case of Nitzanim. Every decade or so, the debate over the battle reawakens. The latest case is the recently published book by the bestselling author Ram Oren, which focuses on the battle of Nitzanim. In 1990 the controversy was stirred back into life by a thoroughly researched work written by Zvika Hadar, "Nitzanim: The Twice-Built Kibbutz." Eight years earlier, in December 1983, a report by Yaakov Achimeir on Israel Television about the subject generated a public furor.

For many young Israelis, Nitzanim is the name of a beach where rock festivals and other gatherings are held, but for Pundak and many others the affair is still an open book. "I have studied every aspect of the battle of Nitzanim," Pundak says. "The kibbutz was attacked with tanks, artillery and planes. The assault began at 8 A.M. and was preceded by a shelling that was launched at midnight. The battle went on until 4 P.M., and yet despite the stubborn resistance of the defenders - soldiers and kibbutz members - the brigade commander allowed his politruk [political officer], Abba Kovner, to issue a battle report that taints the kibbutz for all time."

"The Fall of Nitzanim - A Failure," was the title of the leaflet Kovner wrote. "One doesn't defend one's home conditionally. Defense means with all the forces at the command of one's body and soul, and if fate should so decree, it is better to fall in the trenches of the home than to surrender to the cruel invader ... To surrender as long as the body lives and the last bullet breathes in the clip is a disgrace. To fall into the invader's captivity is shame and death."

Kovner, who was one of the founders of the underground movement in the Vilna Ghetto during World War II, and afterward a resistance fighter who preserved the battle heritage he absorbed in the forests of Eastern Europe (and later still a renowned poet), turned Nitzanim into a symbol of defeatism, weakness and cowardice. "I took it on myself as a life mission to restore to Nitzanim its honor and to protest the mark of opprobrium that was attached to it for no reason," Pundak says.

Seemingly, there was no reason for the struggle he has been waging for decades, as already at the end of May 1949, shortly after the Nitzanim POWs were returned by Egypt, the chief of staff, Yaakov Dori, conveyed to Kibbutz Nitzanim the findings of a commission he had appointed "to investigate the affair of the war and the defense." The conclusions were supposed to remove all doubts about the behavior of the kibbutz once and for all, and to show that Kovner had been wrong to rush to judgment. "The order of the day to the Givati Brigade included passages that imply a casting of aspersions on the Nitzanim fighters," Dori stated. "The order of the day, which was written from the desirable intention of strengthening the spirit of the defenders of the south, did not reflect the whole truth about the defense put up by the Nitzanim group and the bitter struggle by its fighters, and so it is regrettable that, without any malice, the order of the day contained things that should not have been said. The harsh circumstances of the struggle by the settlers of Nitzanim, the bitter isolation of the fighters, the lack of communication with the home front, the dwindling supply of ammunition and food, and above all the high number of those who fell in that defensive battle are faithful testimony of a desperate struggle that confers honor on all those who fought there until the last bullet."

Nevertheless, the document did not succeed in changing the image of Nitzanim in the public consciousness, not least because it did not get the publicity that was needed. In February 1982, a generation and a half after the dramatic events, the kibbutz secretariat asked the community psychological service in the region for assistance, to deal with the feeling of distress that many of the members had developed. "There is a kind of disease in Nitzanim, something viral, upon which antibiotics have no effect. The disease causes a kind of paralysis. Whoever is born here comes into the world affected," was how the kibbutz described the problem to the psychological counseling service.

Terrible curse

"The story of the day of battle left many questions and feelings of anger, guilt and frustration that have not been clarified to this day," the therapists, a psychologist and a social worker, wrote in their concluding report. "Nitzanim is a highly insular community ... Few [of its members] are active outside the kibbutz, few attend institutions of higher learning. The style and way of life is more conservative than in other kibbutzim ... the events of the war undoubtedly influenced this process. The affront caused by the leaflet and the disappointment at the [official] institutions, which didn't provide sufficient help, generated mistrust in external bodies and insularity: We must rely only on ourselves."

"A terrible curse hangs over Nitzanim," a member of the kibbutz told Pundak when he came to pick him up for an evening of memories held at the settlement. "Because of the militant impulse of Abba Kovner, the members of the kibbutz were looked on as traitors. A child who said he was from Nitzanim was regarded with contempt."

Israel has fought many wars since then, and the number of people for whom Nitzanim is a meaningful chapter of their lives has dwindled to a handful. Who cares what happened in Nitzanim, anyway? More people, it turns out, than might be thought. The book by Ram Oren, who has an acute sense of what will be marketable, shows that the curiosity has not yet been sated. The organizers of a symposium on "Tenacity, Evacuation, Retreat," held a year ago at the Academic College of Ashkelon by the Jerusalem-based Yad Ben Zvi Institute, did not anti- cipate the size of the audience. The discussants were three historians - Dr. Meir Pa'il, from the Center for the Study of the Defending Force; Prof. Dina Porat, from Tel Aviv University; and Dr. Motti Golani, from the University of Haifa. Pundak was there, too, and was unable to keep silent in the face of the defense of Avidan and Kovner mounted by Pa'il and Porat. Furious, he got up to respond.

Kibbutz Nitzanim was established in 1943 by members of the Zionist Worker Movement who had arrived in the country four years earlier from Romania and Poland. The kibbutz, with its 60 or 70 inhabitants, was then the sole Jewish site in the heart of an Arab area with a population of 22,000. To the north lay Asdud (now Ashdod), to the south lay Majdal (now Ashkelon), to the east was Beit Daras (Moshav Givati), to the west the sea. In the partition resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly on November 29, 1947, Nitzanim was outside the area that was designated for the Jewish state. The closest friendly community, Be'er Tuvia, was eight kilometers away.

November 1947 was also when Pundak was given command of the 53rd Battalion in the just-created Givati Brigade. The unit was known as the "suburbs battalion," its troops, who were "mainly from the nation's poor," originating in south Tel Aviv neighborhoods such as Kerem Hatemanin and Florentine. The remaining members of the battalion were drawn from the settlements in the arena of operations - the four kibbutzim as well as Kfar Warburg and Be'er Tuvia.

Pundak received the command appointment from David Ben-Gurion after an interview that lasted only a quarter of an hour. He had no operational experience, "and lacked even elementary school education. They made me a battalion commander without my having commanded even a squad in battle," he says with self-irony. He arrived from Poland in 1933, immediately joined the pre-state Haganah defense force, helped take ashore illegal immigrants at Sidna Ali beach near Herzliya, trained troops, and on the eve of the War of Independence was the commander of the Gershon region, which extended from Gedera to Kibbutz Revivim south of Be'er Sheva.

Meeting in Manhattan

To understand Pundak's approach, we have to go back to an unfortunate event that occurred two and a half months before the battle for Nitzanim. A supply convoy from Be'er Tuvia to Nitzanim encountered an Arab force under the command of a British defector near the abandoned military base at Hasa. Two trucks escaped and reached Nitzanim safely, but the armored escort vehicles became mired in mud and were encircled by the Egyptians.

At Pundak's order, a rescue force set out from Be'er Tuvia and reached the area of the ambush but was unable to make contact with the besieged soldiers and went on to Nitzanim. Pundak ordered the force commanders to return to the site of the ambush, and finally the encircled troops were freed, but four soldiers from the 53rd Battalion were killed and five wounded. The two armored vehicles were taken by the Egyptians. The series of blunders that attended the incident overshadowed manifestations of great heroism. The battalion commander removed the commander of Gimmel Company, Shlomo Kreisel, who seemingly had failed to attempt to engage the Egyptians in the rescue operation.

Fifty-five years later, the veterans of the battalion decided to write a book about the 1948 war. Pundak, while perusing the large amount of material that had accumulated, discovered to his astonishment that Kreisel had not been the commander of the rescue force and that it had therefore been a serious mistake to remove him. On the contrary, he found that the company commander had been the victim of false accusations and that he deserved a medal for the leadership and tenacity he showed under fire, and certainly not the humiliation in the wake of which he immigrated in shame to the United States.

Deeply upset, Pundak activated the network of friends and donors he had established as chairman of the Givati Brigade House Association. With the aid of the American branch he located Kreisel - who in the meantime had changed his name to Shlomo Haggi - in Manhattan. That was a year ago, in June 2003. Pundak, who was then visiting relatives in Tampa, Florida, flew to New York and called the number he had been given. "This is your battalion commander from 1948," Pundak said. "I absolutely have to see you for a few minutes about an extremely important matter." To which Haggi replied that he would under no circumstances meet with him. "You're absolutely right," Pundak said, "but I've come to ask you to forgive me."

Silence fell, Pundak relates. "I heard him consulting with his wife. Then he picked up the receiver and said, `I'm ready, but when you arrive don't be frightened by my face, which is twisted: I had a bit of a stroke.' I rushed over to his place. He lives in a luxury building on the 16th floor - the whole city lies at his feet - and told him what I had learned, and how. `I kicked you out wrongly, on the basis of lying reports of an officer who wasn't one of your fans. I'm sorry. You were the hero of the battle and I ruined your life. The incident is bothering me very much and I can't get it out of my head. Will you forgive me?'

"Naturally he refused. At this point his wife, who is much younger than he is, intervened. She told me she knows all about the episode and that her husband had never for a minute forgotten the wrong that had been done him. After he was removed from his post his friends had abandoned him and he wasn't able to find work, so he left the country - but to think that the battalion commander would come in old age especially to New York to ask for forgiveness was totally incomprehensible. Don't press him, she told me. We sat and talked, he cried and I cried, and we parted without his agreeing to forgive me, but that will come," Pundak says hopefully. "We'll write you about what we decide," his wife promised before closing the door behind him.

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