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  • Writer's pictureBeth S.

Kibbutz Battles of the Israeli War of Independence

Updated: May 3, 2019

(original post from September 22 has been split into three parts: “Israel and the Palestinians”; “Kibbutz Battles” and “Israel and Arabic Neighbors”)

On May 15, 1948, Israel was invaded by five Arab countries simultaneously. Israel was poorly supplied and had few weapons. It was defended by a band of fighters called the Haganah which soon became the modern IDF (Israel Defense Forces).

The Haganah had been working for years to smuggle weapons into the country under the British Mandate. In one famous instance, an underground munitions factory was hidden beneath a kibbutz. They knew that a confrontation with neighboring Arab countries was inevitable. Haganah fighters were both men and women. Some were Jewish settlers from the area and others were survivors of the Holocaust or had combat experience in World War II. They were assisted in remarkable ways by Israeli settlers, farmers (kibbutz members) and in some cases even by their Arab neighbors.

In two famous instances, a single kibbutz (a collective farm like a small village) held off far superior armies to give the Israeli military time to organize a defense. The two most famous kibbutz battles were Kibbutz Degania, which held off the advance of the Syrian army in the north; and Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, which held off the Egyptian army for 5 days and saved the city of Tel Aviv.

Kibbutz Degania is located on the Sea of Galilee and is the first kibbutz established in Palestine in 1909. On May 18, 1948, Degania received word that nearby settlements were suffering heavy aerial bombardment and the Syrians were now advancing toward them. They were entrenched, but faced a far superior invading force with tanks, armored cars and aircraft.

On May 20th, the Syrian army attacked. The settlers of Degania had one anti-tank weapon and a few rifles, but largely relied on home-made Molotov cocktails and some grenades. With these weapons, the defenders managed to disable two Syrian tanks. After the battle had started, they were provided with some artillery and anti-aircraft weapons by the IDF, but most arrived too late to do any good. These artillery pieces did not have enough ammunition and came without aiming sights, but they did provide a psychological advantage. Degania lost 67 of 70 defenders but managed to stop the Syrian advance long enough for the IDF to gather and prepare a defense on the northern front.

Yad Mordechai is a kibbutz located near the Gaza strip, just six miles from Ashkelon. It was named after the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Mordechai Anilewitz. In the battle for Yad Mordechai, 130 settlers held off two battalions of Egyptian troops. The members of the kibbutz did not have enough weapons for everyone, so they took rifles and ammunition from dead Egyptian soldiers during the night. Again, Molotov cocktails were the easiest weapons to make. Though the kibbutz lost about two dozen defenders, they were able to delay the advance of the Egyptian army for 5 days and allow the city of Tel Aviv to prepare for attack, sparing the city and many lives. The fighting was close combat and extremely fierce. The Egyptians suffered 300-400 casualties.

Visitors to Kibbutz Yad Mordechai today will see the positions of the original entrenchments surrounded by cutout figures representing the two battalions of Egyptian troops attacking them. It is easy to imagine what must have gone through the minds of the defenders crouching in their trenches armed with only Molotov cocktails.

… for he who touches you touches the apple of his eye … -- Zechariah 2:8b (ESV)


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