Gideon Eilat, a Palmach commander who fought the Arab armies during the War of Independence and the British before that, died Tuesday at 91.
In June 1946, Eilat took part in the Night of the Bridges operation, in which Jewish forces foiled the British by destroying bridges linking Mandatory Palestine to the country’s neighbors. During the British operation later that month known as Black Sabbath, Eilat was among the many hundred Jews arrested.
In the War of Independence, he commanded a company in the battles for Latrun, a strategic hilltop in the center of the country. He later returned to the Palmach strike force as commander of the Yiftah Brigade’s Third Battalion.
“My battalion was composed mainly of Palmach trainees, and the Gahal [recruits from abroad] took over for the dead and wounded,” he said in an interview published on the website of Kibbutz Beit Alfa, of which he was a member. “I remember that we had a group of teachers go from one post to another and teach Hebrew to the new recruits so we could communicate with them.”
In Operation Yoav in October 1948, the Third Battalion was assigned a special mission: to seize outposts east of the town of Beit Hanun. The goal was to control the main road through Gaza and disrupt Egyptian transport and supply efforts.
“There were many difficulties — throughout every day of the operation, we had to be remain in a defensive position, something we weren’t used to. We knew that the Egyptians would respond to our operation and start shelling us, to break our spirit and make us retreat,” Eilat said.
“I remember the night that we set out, when the whole battalion with all its equipment was deployed near Nir Am. The force had something like 500 to 600 soldiers, who were spread out over a large area that covered a few kilometers.”
Eilat said he and Palmach commander Yigal Allon then witnessed a special chapter of Israeli history.
“I drove with Yigal Allon along our line of control, and in the northern section we got as far as Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, which had been liberated from the Egyptians and was all destroyed,” Eilat said.
“At the foot of the wrecked water tower we saw a group of people in a heated argument. They were kibbutz members who had returned after the liberation, and were now debating whether to really return and rebuild it. It was quite a moving scene.”
Eilat was born on January 17, 1924, in Konigsberg, Germany, and immigrated to Palestine with his family in 1933. After graduating from Tichon Hadash High School in Tel Aviv, he joined the Palmach in 1942.
A year later he went to Kfar Menachem for a special course and became a squad commander.
In 1945, he completed the platoon commanders’ course and was later appointed the PR officer for the Second Battalion. In 1946, he was appointed commander of Company Bet in the Second Battalion.
In 1950, he was discharged from the army. During his reserve service, he was a battalion commander in the Second Brigade. He also held a number of positions on Kibbutz Beit Alfa, including kibbutz secretary.
He is survived by his wife Ruthie, four children and grandchildren.