New Museum Tells of Israeli Setback on a 1948 Battleground

A month later, Israel won the day at a total cost of 28 elite Palmach soldiers over three days of fighting.

The new HaReut Museum in the Upper Galilee is devoted to just one day – April 20, 1948, a month before Israeli independence. The subject: the Palmach’s second battle at a fort held by Arab forces.

The Palmach lost that battle, before winning a rematch a month later. The Palmach’s Third Battalion – an elite force – tried to take the Nabi Yusha fort but left behind 22 dead, among them the force’s commander, Dudu Cherkasky.

The museum is next to the Metzudat Koach Memorial that commemorates the second round of the battle. The museum doesn’t try to tell the story of the Palmach or the establishment of the state; it focuses completely on the story of comrades committed to one another.

In mid-April 1948, the British left the fort, which they had used as a police station, and Arab troops took over – an act the Palmach saw as a threat to the Galilee's roads.

Four Palmach fighters were killed in the first battle on April 15. The Palmach withdrew. The second battle – the focus of the museum – took place five days later.

A three-pronged force of 80 Palmach fighters set out. Cherkasky’s platoon climbed a steep slope all night, but was discovered by Arab fighters ensconced in the fort. A month later, when the fort was taken, 19 of the 22 dead would be buried in a mass grave nearby.

The fort was taken days after independence was declared, with the help of two planes. It was the first battle Israel won as a state. Two more fighters were killed in that third battle, bringing the death toll from the three battles to 28.

The 28 gave the fort its new name, Koach, made up of the Hebrew letters kaf and het, which, since Hebrew letters also function as numbers, add up to 28. The Hebrew word they form means strength. A cave where several fighters hid, and where a platoon commander killed two mortally wounded soldiers and took his own life so as not to abandon them, sits near the mass grave.

From the area around the mass grave, the Hula Valley can be seen in all its splendor. Boaz Dekel, a businessman from Tel Aviv, explained why he devotes so much time and money to promote this faraway museum.

“It’s the unwritten will of my father, Yehuda Dekel, an old-time Palmach fighter, a member of the Third Battalion. It was his idea to establish the museum,” he says.

“My father, who was 19 at the time, came here a few days after the battle, found his comrades’ bodies and, with other fighters, dug the mass grave where they’re buried. His commitment to this place was total. He also planned every detail of the museum, but didn’t live to see his vision fulfilled.”

Dekel had invited me for a visit by helicopter. The flight from the Herzliya airfield to the small helipad beside the museum took about 50 minutes. The fields below were almost entirely yellow.

“This is the place where the most important values of the State of Israel – comradeship, mutual commitment and brotherhood – find expression,” Dekel said, standing in the courtyard next to the museum.

The museum cost 8 million shekels ($2.3 million). Most of it came from private sources – businessman Stef Wertheimer and Dekel’s family, along with members of the Kibbutz Dafna scout group and Palmach fighters who donated as much as they could.

At the museum, computer screens detail the battle. Visitors can imagine themselves marching up the streambed with the fighters. Television screens show pictures of the area and interviews with people who fought there.

Also shown is a poignant conversation with poet Haim Gouri, who wrote the poem “Hare’ut” (“Comradeship”) during the War of Independence, about soldiers killed in action. It was later set to music and became an Israeli classic.

The museum houses the first draft of the poem in Gouri’s handwriting. Gouri had given the original copy to Dekel’s mother. At the museum’s opening, he talked about the connection between the poem and the battle for the fort.

Moshe Gilad