Yitzhak Pundak, the first commander of the IDF Nahal Brigade, founder of the IDF Armored Corps and the first IDF general to reach that rank – at age 100 – after retiring from the army, died Sunday at age 104.
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At his request, he was buried in the plot reserved for fighters from the 1948 War of Independence at Kibbutz Nitzanim, for whose fall during the War of Independence he said he felt some responsibility.
Pundak was born in 1913 in Poland and came to live in Palestine in 1933. Three years later he joined the pre-state Haganah underground. During the War of Independence, David Ben-Gurion asked Pundak to establish a battalion and command it. “Within three months we had founded a battalion on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, 450 soldiers,” Pundak recalled at a lecture two years ago. His troops successfully defended the Hatikvah neighborhood in Tel Aviv against an assault by Arabs from the nearby village of Salameh.
In March 1948, Pundak was sent south “with 450 soldiers and weapons for a single company,” he said. To obtain more weapons, he said, he took them from Arab villagers. “I’d tell an Arab village, if you give up your weapons, you’ll be able to stay here and nothing will happen to you. With those weapons I outfitted another company,” he added.
Pundak said he never forgot what he called his two wounds from the War of Independence. The first was a so-called friendly fire incident on March 13, 1948, when Battalion 53 under his command fired on their own troops, killing seven and injuring 12. The incident occurred when his troops were attacked by Arabs from the village of Faluja. “A squad from my battalion, which was at Kibbutz Gat, came to help us. The first armored vehicle saw the forces approaching and because there was no radio contact, the soldiers were sure they were Arabs, and fired. The platoon commander started waving with his white undershirt and shouting ‘don’t shoot!’ He was wounded, but thanks to him the firing stopped. That was my first battle as battalion commander,” Pundak said.
'That was my fault too'
is second wound, Pundak said, was the fall of Kibbutz Nitzanim to the Egyptian army in June 1948 after reinforcements failed to arrive to defend it. “There was no reason for it to fall in battle, but that was my fault too.” As a young, inexperienced battalion commander, Pundak said, he was not forceful enough in demanding reinforcements from the brigade commander, Shimon Avidan. In an interview in 2004, Pundak said the reason reinforcements were not sent was political – Nitzanim belonged to the Noar Hatzioni movement, while all the senior brigade commanders belonged to Hashomer Hatza’ir.
In 1991, Pundak wrote an emotional letter to Kibbutz Nitzanim, which was reestablished after the war, asking to be buried in the plot in the kibbutz cemetery reserved for the fallen from the 1948 war.
After the war, Pundak established the Nahal Brigade and the Armored Corps. Later he served as the first mayor of the Negev city of Arad, and became Israel’s ambassador to Tanzania, Zanzibar, Guatemala and El Salvador, as well as governor of the Gaza Strip and northern Sinai after the Six-Day War, among other positions.
In 2013, at age 100, Pundak won a battle he had been fighting for decades, receiving the rank of general, which he had been promised by Moshe Dayan in 1954.
Pundak, who lived in Kfar Yona, is to be buried next to his wife, Masha. He is survived by three children, four grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.