Once a Palmachnik, Always a Palmachnik

It is refreshing, even moving, to come across a book that brings us back to the real thing.

Harel: Hativat Palmach - Harel bamaarakha al Yerushalayim 5708/1948 (Harel: Palmach Brigade in Jerusalem), by Zvi Dror, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 303 pages, NIS 88

A soldier named Yair participated in one of the battles for Jerusalem in 1948. Zvi Dror does not reveal Yair's surname, perhaps out of sheer embarrassment. Because Yair spoke about that battle only in his old age. Out of sheer embarrassment. Dror explains: "In the tumult of the retreat, he dropped his rifle but he simply did not have the strength to bend down and pick it up. He could never forgive himself for that, nor can he derive any solace from the fact that there were others who returned from the battle without their weapons."

It is not difficult to imagine Yair today. He is perhaps a great grandfather. The state for whose establishment he fought is justly and despite everything regarded as one of the 20th century's success stories. Most Israelis have probably never heard of the Palmach's Harel Brigade. However, for the better part of his life, Yair has been tormented by his terrible secret: He dropped his rifle and never recovered it. Dror does not mock Yair nor should anyone really. Yair was like those Japanese soldiers who emerged from the jungles only to discover to their surprise that World War II had ended 50 years earlier.

Dror is not amazed by what happened to Yair. He himself, a member of Kibbutz Lohamei Hagettaot, belongs to the generation of warriors he describes in his book, which is dedicated to the memory of the members of Palmach-Harel who fell in the War of Independence. The copyright belongs to the association of Palmach veterans that initiated the idea for the book. One of those warriors is author Nathan Shaham, who also edited "Harel: Palmach Brigade in Jerusalem." After an entire library has been published by new and not-so-new historians, by post-Zionists and others, it is somewhat refreshing, even moving, to come across a book that brings us back to the real thing: once a Palmachnik, always a Palmachnik.

The Harel Brigade was founded in mid-April 1948. Many of its commanders and officers are today unknown figures, except to their families and scholars of that era. However, its first commander was Yitzhak Rabin. The brigade tried to capture Jerusalem and the road leading to it but it was only partially successful. Latrun and the Old City of Jerusalem remained in Jordanian hands. Here are the foundations for a great drama.

Dror is the author of one of the most important books ever written about Holocaust survivors in Israel. The book - the chronicles of the members of his kibbutz - has been published in four volumes. Other books he has written include a biography of Yitzhak Sadeh, commander of the Palmach. Dror takes pains to state that "Harel" is not a scholarly study, although he made extensive use of documents, including letters, diaries, memoirs and oral testimony from brigade veterans who are still alive. The result is an important, very readable book about people who were fighting a war that is described here as if it were an extended teenage adventure. The depictions of the battles do not interest Dror too much, and he focuses instead on the personalities and motives of the soldiers. This is an interesting and justified approach because the Palmach was a very ideological and a very political army.

The residents of one Palestinian village "welcomed" the approaching brigade members in Yiddish: "Moisheleh, kim, kim!" (Moisheleh, come here, come here!) In fact, most of Harel's soldiers and officers were Ashkenazis. They were joined at a later stage by Soviet refugees with names like Grishka and Yasha. The order to attack the village of Suba was given in Yiddish and, when the troops stormed it, they shouted in Russian, following the practice in the Red Army, "For the homeland! For Stalin!" Some added, "For Ben-Gurion!"

Youthful exuberance

This was the brigade of Benny, Yosefeleh, Tzippy and Dassy. They tended to avoid surnames, striving to promote the atmosphere of a close-knit family. But Yitzhak Rabin was always Yitzhak Rabin. More introverted than the others, more restrained. A bit alienated from the rest. The brigade's soldiers acted like members of a youth movement who love to tell tall tales and sing and who find it difficult to grow up. Suddenly, as members of a militia, they were now called upon to kill and be killed. However, once they finally understood the reality of their situation, the war was already over. Many of them considered the Green Line an insult - until the following war.

Some of the drama that Dror documents stems from the gap between the youthful exuberance that characterized the brigade and the horrors of war. Furthermore, he repeatedly states that the Arabs enjoyed mutilating the bodies of dead Israeli soldiers. If what he writes is correct, they would frequently - almost as a matter of routine - cut off the dead soldiers' genitals and stuff them into the mouths of the corpses.

One gets the impression that Dror himself fears the horrors. There is the photocopy of a manuscript that contains the statement, "He was a big loss; his body had been decapitated." Later he quotes the statement, but the quotation is slightly inaccurate. However, in both places, he seeks to avoid mentioning the name of the soldier whose corpse had been decapitated - as if he were still standing over it. On the basis of the context, we can guess that he is referring to Danny Mass, commander of a company of 38 soldiers, of whom 35 were killed trying to reach Gush Etzion. Dror cracks the halo of myth surrounding these legendary 35 soldiers. According to Dror, they failed to carry out their mission because they had set out too late in the day. A simple foul-up, with no mention of the glorious saga that has developed around the group.

There were other blunders, which Dror cautiously depicts, such as the failure to capture the Old City. He treads on thin ice, quoting from a document that cites serious disagreements between the various brigades over the allocation of resources, over the distribution of the "workload" in the fighting, over styles of administrative procedure, over battle strategies, over almost anything. The document refers to telephones that were angrily slammed down, mutual accusations, rivalry between commanders and personal grudges. In a telegram he sent on May 22, Rabin writes: "The Palmach has broken through to the Jewish residents of the Old City. This great achievement has been squandered. Central command of the city displays no initiative, is not mobilizing Jerusalem's Jews to defend themselves. The city is not satisfactorily fortified ... The central command of the city must be replaced immediately."

A second chance

The villain in the eyes of the Palmach was the commander of the Jerusalem district, David Shaltiel, who claimed that Rabin's unit was a bunch of robbers. Some of these disputes should be mentioned only at evening gatherings of Palmach veterans who want to engage in nostalgia. However, some of the blunders continued to haunt them long after the war was over. Some of them considered the Six-Day War a second chance to correct the errors of 1948.

In 1967, they again encountered the Palestinian refugees of 1948. Prior to the Six-Day War, Israelis tended to ignore the refugees, as if they were only a diplomatic nuisance that would repeatedly emerge in the annual debate in the United Nations General Assembly. Dror does not talk much about the fate of the Palestinians. Thus, it is unclear who escaped and who was banished in Operation Danny. When they entered Palestinian villages, he writes, the brigade's members passed by the "corpses of enemy soldiers." Here and there were still some signs of life in the empty houses - for instance, ovens that were still warm. "The veterans of that harsh war were confused," Dror writes. "They felt a certain sense of relief and a measure of curiosity as they walked among cabins and houses that had just previously been occupied by Arabs. One of them would chase a scared hen and his colleagues would announce that a bonfire would be organized - just like the good old days, back at the kibbutz."

Kibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House has added photographs and useful maps of the battles. Thus the absence of an index cannot be due to penny-pinching. Apparently, the publishers thought it would be superfluous. After all, everybody knows where Lusik, Zivi and the rest of the bunch were anyway.

Tom Segev's book "Israel in 1967" (in Hebrew) will soon be published by Keter.