At first glance, the photographs look like they’re from a classic American Western. The young men are strong and shirtless and carry long rifles as they gallop onward. But the men in the pictures aren’t actors, the animals they are riding aren’t horses and the setting is a far cry from the Wild West.
In fact, the photos are from the archives of the Palmach, the strike force formed by the Haganah Jewish underground during the British Mandate period, and they were made public by Dr. Eldad Haruvi, the director of the Palmach archives, for the Haganah’s 100th anniversary. They provide an impressive and rare glimpse at the camel squad that briefly operated during the 1948 War of Independence.
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What were camels doing in the Palmach? Not much, it turns out, other than posing for photographs that now grace the Palmach archives. “At one point, we tried to establish a camel unit and in fact mustered up about 10 camels,” wrote David Aloni, the commander of the Palmach’s mounted cavalry unit, in an account that is now in the archives.
Aloni was born in 1924 in Poland. During the cold Polish winters of his early childhood he never could have imagined that two decades later he would find himself riding on a camel in a Middle Eastern desert. But at age 10, after the Nazis assumed power in neighboring Germany, he immigrated to Palestine. At 20 he joined the Palmach, which was absorbed into the Israeli army once the state was established in 1948.
During Israel’s War of Independence, Aloni commanded the mounted cavalry unit, which consisted of a horse squad and a camel squad. It was part of the Negev Brigade’s 8th Battalion and was commanded by Haim Bar-Lev, who years later became the army’s chief of staff.
Initially, the cavalry squad was blandly called the patrol unit. It was responsible for protecting the water line that ran from Nir Am, near the northern end of what is now the Gaza Strip, to Nirim further to the south. It was a rather thankless task given the number of incidents of Arab sabotage on the pipeline.
The patrols were made using armored vehicles, but the armor plating was not sufficient to keep weapons fire from penetrating. When the Arabs began planting mines on the roads, Palmach members realized that they had to think outside the box. They switched to infantry patrols on foot, which gave them access to areas beyond the roads.
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“We went on patrol almost every night,” Aloni recounted – but this approach also had its limitations. The people on patrol were young and in good shape, but they couldn’t cover a range of more than 15 kilometers (9 miles), so the horses came to their rescue “to expand our range of action,” as Aloni put it.
And where did the horses come from? The Palmachniks stole them from their Bedouin neighbors, or as Aloni described in one account, “we took them.” On another occasion he described it as “acquiring” the horses. But the truth was much simpler: “The battalion confiscated horses and camels from the Bedouin,” the official Palmach commemorative website states.
A guide from Moshav Be’er Tuvia came to the Negev specially to teach the Palmachniks how to ride “and how to act on a horse in general,” Aloni wrote. Then, “after we turned into real mounted soldiers,” they set out to patrol greater distances of up to 70 kilometers from their base.
With the extension of their range, “we carried out several operations that I think should be kept quiet even now,” he said several years ago without elaborating.
They went behind enemy lines on a number of occasions, crossing through the border fence with Egypt relatively easily on horseback, following Bedouin who had crossed before them. One of their initial missions took them as far as the railroad tracks near the Suez Canal.
“We set out on horseback in the dark. There was no path, just sand,” Aloni recalled. They used a compass or the North Star to get their bearings and calculated how far they had traveled based on how long they had been riding. Following the success of the mission, they directed their attention to planning the next one – blowing up the tracks.
Armed with Sten guns, hand grenades, a pistol and explosives charges, they reached their destination, attached explosives to the tracks, activated a timer and got away from the scene. “The tracks were put out of action for a day or two,” he boasted.
On another occasion, they detonated mines on a passenger train. “Spirits were high and then we started making our way back,” he described. But they were in for an unwelcome surprise when they were ambushed by gunfire. They had to abandon their horses and return on foot.
“And quietly and patiently, we got to a highway and crossed back by crawling on our stomachs, without being stopped,” Aloni said.
So what was the role of the camels? Aloni admitted that they never really worked out. “It was very difficult,” he wrote.
One time they decided to take the camels on a journey “for a training trip of sorts.” The plan was to set out from Kibbutz Gvulot to Revivim, 35 kilometers away. That’s not an impossible task for a camel, the “ship of the desert,” an animal capable of covering 200 kilometers a day with a rider on its back. But Aloni’s group encountered one problem after another. “We didn’t know how to deal with them. The saddles kept slipping down to their stomachs,” Aloni said. “After that trip, the whole business with the camels fell apart,” he acknowledged.
But the army didn’t give up. In 1953 plans were drawn up for a new camel unit, which would be integrated into a military force of mules, donkeys, pigeons, llamas and dogs.
A document in the Palmach archives describes the plan to enlist camels into the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces as based on a need for “a mobile unit capable of moving over any terrain without limitations of space or administrative problems.”
The army pinned high hopes on the camels. “The capacity to be mobile over such spaces from a unit that would not arouse suspicion will enable the camel unit to achieve its special missions with maximum surprise,” the document said.
Three months later, the plan was put into action. A representative of the army’s general staff noted at a special meeting that the equipment necessary for the camel unit “needs to be created specially since it doesn’t exist in the army.” And what about the camels themselves? “At a meeting, it was decided that the Southern Command would provide the required camels,” the document stated.
According to the army’s archives, there were camels in the ranks of the IDF as recently as the 1990s.