Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Operation Betzer: An Operation Against Shirkers and Deserters in Israel's War of Independence

On August 22, 1948, the IDF initiated Operation Betzer (Strength), which took place during the "Second Truce" in Israel's War of Independence (a truce organized by the UN from July 18 – October 15, 1948). The target of the operation was not one of the invading Arab armies, but rather citizens in Tel Aviv, or more accurately: shirkers and deserters.

As it is today, in the ongoing public debate on "carrying the burden" (service in the army vs. avoiding military service), Tel Aviv was regarded as the center of shirking and avoidance of military service. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the head of the manpower branch of Israel's General Staff, Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern, was quoted as saying "In those [Tel Aviv] houses there is no bereavement, hardly any." The reality is more complex, as usual. But Tel Aviv, being a most central and celebrated city in Israel, attracts more attention, and any display of shirking is intensified and enlarged. (The geography of residence of the fallen in the current military operation, "Protective Edge," shows that casualties in fact came from every part of Israeli society.)

These feelings were far more intensified during the desperate days of the War of Independence. The existence of draft dodgers, while the Yishuv was literally fighting for its life, was regarded as a threat to the cohesion of the Jewish population. In his book, Social Mobilization in the Arab/Israeli War of 1948: On the Israeli Home Front, the Israeli historian Moshe Naor described the background of the unusual military operation, Betzer, which aimed to combat this phenomenon.

The story began in December 1947, when the "Center of the Census for Popular Service" was formed. This institution spelled the end of voluntary enlistment to the different underground movements and the beginning of compulsory enlistment, and the formation of a large conscript army. This center was responsible for the fact that the Yishuv managed to build an army of 100,000 soldiers out of a population of 650,000 in 1948, a force that was augmented with an addition of 15,000 volunteers from MAHAL (Jews from other countries, many WWII veterans from the USA, South Africa, Britain and Canada) and GAHAL (Foreign enlistment – Jews from the displaced camps in Europe and the internment camps in Cyprus).

On August 22, 1948, Operation Betzer commenced. It was executed by troops from the "Kiryati" brigade (then a Haganah brigade, formed from recruits from the Tel Aviv area), soldiers of the military police, the Women's Corps, the Guard Force (a stationary military unit of the Haganah that was responsible for guarding the Jewish villages), navy sailors and volunteers from the civil guard. The Tel Aviv area was put under curfew, roadblocks were erected and all entering and leaving Tel Aviv had to present their papers to the soldiers. All men from the ages 17 – 50 and women in the ages 16 – 35 were called to present themselves at different identification posts, which were spread across Tel Aviv. More than 150 search details scanned the city in search of shirkers and deserters.

2794 citizens were arrested in the operation (1044 men and 1720 women). 652 men and 352 women were sent immediately to mobilization. 189 men and 1365 women had their induction postponed and 203 men and 3 women were arrested as deserters. The operation sparked great criticism in Tel Aviv because it displayed it as a city of draft evaders, and the way the operation was handled reminded many of the British army sweeps during the British Mandate's war against the Jewish underground movements. There was also a claim that using an army for this kind of operation would distance it from the general public. (David Ben Gurion raised this concern, in his war diary in the entry on September 5, 1948.)

Here are some photos of the operation, taken by Benno Rothenberg (learn more about him at Haifa University's site):

Aside from these photos, we found the Betzer operation in another place in the archive: inside foreign passports, as part of the Israel State Archives collection of passports, travel documents and identity cards. Inside one of these passports we found the stamp of Operation Betzer.

The Israel State Archives holds a collection of passports, travel documents and identity cards from different countries in the world. The source of this collection may have come from the immigration department of the British mandate in Palestine. The regular procedure to receive citizenship in British-mandated Palestine was relinquishment of one's former citizenship and passport. This procedure held during the first years of the state of Israel until 1951, when this requirement was nullified.

The collection was transferred to the archives from the Ministry of Interior during the 80s. It is only a sample collection and does not include all the passports handed over to the Ministry of Interior. Most of the documents were destroyed by the Ministry of Interior. We also know that many did not hand over their passports when they received Israeli citizenship--and kept them.

We have published in the past a gallery of different passports including the passport of Rudolf Kastner, with the permission of his granddaughter, MK Merav Michaeli.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dramatic Decisions During the First Lebanese War: Ariel Sharon's Authority is Curtailed, 12 August 1982

In the summer of 1982, 32 years ago, Israel was also involved in a military campaign against Palestinian terrorists across the border. "Operation Peace for Galilee," known today as the First Lebanese War, began on 6 June 1982. In the government discussions beforehand, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon said it would last no longer than 48 hours, and he hoped it would not cause a clash between Israel and Syrian troops in Lebanon. When it was decided to launch the operation on June 5, it was limited to an advance of 40 kilometers into Lebanon – the range of the Katyusha rockets threatening northern Israel. Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan (Raful) drew the 40 kilometer line on a map shown to the ministers before they approved the operation. But the IDF became involved in fighting with the Syrian Army and it lasted weeks which turned into months. Israel only withdrew from most of Lebanon in January 1985, leaving a small "security zone" held by the South Lebanon Army militia with Israeli help until 2000.

Defense Minister "Arik" Sharon briefs journalists on Operation Peace for Galilee, June 11, 1982. (Photograph: Yaacov Saar, Government Press Office)
The factor which disturbed a growing group of ministers in 1982 was that the area held by the IDF was moving more and more to the north until Beirut and the Beirut-Damascus road were reached, well beyond the 40 kilometer line. From time to time Sharon brought the government proposals to occupy various sections of Lebanese territory, and sometimes these proposals were rejected. But the main criticism of him was that he was presenting the government with a fait accompli, after the IDF had already moved north, seized territory and begun to lay siege to West Beirut, which was held by the PLO, a Syrian brigade and Muslim Lebanese forces.

On 8 August, after the IDF had taken Beirut airport, Deputy Prime Minister David Levy protested against the move, which had damaged the confidence of the United States in Israel and said that Prime Minister Menachem Begin was not informed beforehand. Begin replied: "I assure you, David, that I am always informed, either in advance or after the fact." We can conclude that Levy's claim that the IDF, on Sharon's orders, took Beirut airport without Begin's authority was probably correct.

On 12 August criticism of Sharon reached its height after news arrived of another IDF advance in West Beirut. After a stormy meeting, it was decided to take away some of Sharon's powers over the Air Force and the ground forces and to force him to receive advance authorization from the prime minister. The decision was supported by all the ministers except for Sharon himself and Yuval Neeman. You can read about this and other dramatic episodes during the war (in Hebrew) in the ISA's recently published volume of documents on Menachem Begin, edited by Arye Naor and Arnon Lammfromm.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Israelis Under Fire – Not For The First Time

The recent fighting in Gaza and the south of Israel (Operation "Protective Edge") is not the first time Israeli townships and villages have been attacked by artillery of different sorts. Since the 50s, Jewish communities have been targets for this kind of aggression. The Kisufim, Nirim and Ein Ha'shlosha kibbutzim were bombarded by the Egyptian army (which occupied the Gaza strip after Israel's War of Independence in 1948) in April 1956. In response, the IDF retaliated by bombarding Egyptian targets and inflicted heavy losses on the Egyptians.

After the Sinai war in October 1956, the point of friction moved to northern Israel. The Syrian army, which controlled the Golan Heights overlooking the Hula valley villages and the eastern Galilee, harassed and bombarded the settlements with heavy artillery fire, and many firefights took place in the years 1958–1967.
An Israeli artillery battery in the Galilee (Israel State Archives)
Examining the damage of an artillery shell in Tel Katzir kibbutz (GPO
One of these firefights, on April 7, 1967, deteriorated into a full battle in which the Israeli air force destroyed Syrian artillery batteries, tanks and fortified positions that had bombarded the Gadot and Eib Gev kibbutzim. When the Syrian air force tried to intervene, seven Syrian fighter planes were shot down--several over Damascus itself. Many believe that this incident was a catalyst to the entrance of the Egyptian army into Sinai on May 15, 1967, and three weeks later to the Six Day War.

Following the Six Day War, the settlements in the upper Jordan valley became victims of rocket and mortar fire from Palestinian terrorists, who turned northern Jordan into their stronghold. The Jordanian army and the Iraqi expeditionary force (based in Jordan since the Six Day War) joined in and bombarded kibbutzim such as Ashdot Ya'acov, Sha'ar Ha'golan and Masada, as well as Moshavim (villages) such as Yardena and Beit Yosef. The inhabitants of these communities spent long days and nights in bomb shelters, while the IDF retaliated with artillery fire, tank shells and air force strikes. Here's a part of a newsreel in Hebrew, showing the damage done by the Jordanian artillery and Israeli airstrikes to silence the guns.

Following the intensification of the fire, the Israeli air force bombed the bases of the Iraqi expeditionary force in northern Jordan and inflicted heavy losses. (The Iraqi government used this attack as an excuse to further harass and abuse the remaining Jews in Iraq. This harassment culminated in the hanging of nine Jews in January 1969, as we wrote about previously). The air force bombed the East Ghor Main Canal – a central water project in Northern Jordan. Following the bombings, which rendered the canal useless, King Hussein asked the USA to intervene and stop the bombings and Israel announced that it would do so if the King fought the terrorist organizations. In September 1970, the King did just that when he expelled the Palestinian terrorist organizations and ordered the Iraqi expeditionary force back to Iraq.

The next people to be shelled were the residents of Israel's northern border, especially those who bordered Lebanon. As early as 1968, Palestinian terrorists shelled Kiryat Shmona, Nahariya and other northern towns and villages.

Residents of Kiryat Shmona after a rocket attack in 1968 (Israel State Archives

Golda Meir at the funeral of Daniel Khayo, slain in a rocket attack on Kiryat Shmona in May 1970 (GPO)

The expulsion of the Palestinian terrorists from Jordan to Lebanon intensified the rate of attacks on Israel's northern border communities. The IDF retaliated in raids, artillery fire and air strikes. This situation continued through the 70s to the early 80s.

Children hide in a bomb shelter in Nahariya during a rocket attack on the city in 1979 (GPO)

Residents of Nahariya in a bomb shelter during a rocket attack in 1979 (GPO)

A direct hit in a house in Nahariya, June 1982 (Israel State Archive)

In the early 1980s, the PLO's artillery barrages on Israel's northern border escalated, after the organization started using real artillery--Soviet 130mm cannons and heavier rockets. The First Lebanon War (Operation Peace for Galilee: June 1982 – June 1985) eliminated this threat to the northern border. Later on, when the clashes with the Hezbollah terror organization intensified in southern Lebanon, the threat of rocket fire on the northern border became real again. In 1993 and 1996, in Operations "Accountability" and "Grapes of Wrath" (respectively), the IDF concentrated air and artillery strikes to stop Hezbollah from shooting rockets at northern Israel.

Clearing the rubble after a rocket attack on Kiryat Shmona, August 1993 (GPO)

After Israel's unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah enlarged its rocket stockpile and unleashed it on the northern Israeli communities during the Second Lebanon War (July 12, 2006 – August 14, 2006). Since then, the northern border has remained quiet--aside from several incidents of rocket fire, usually from Palestinian organizations.

On January 30, 2001, an improvised rocket was shot at the Netzarim settlement near Gaza. The Hamas terror organization that fired it nicknamed it "Qassam" after the 30s gang leader Izz ad-Din al-Qassam. In April 2001, the first rocket was fired at Sderot. Since then, thousands of rockets, ever improving in payload and range, have been shot at Israel. The IDF has responded to the rockets with air strikes, artillery fire, and three major air and land operations: Operation "Cast Lead" (Dec. 12, 2008 – Jan. 18, 2009), Operation "Pillar of Defense" (Nov. 14, 2012 – Nov. 21, 2012) and the current Operation "Protective Edge" which started on July 8, 2014.

Every decade in Israel's history finds one part of the country or another under artillery fire, and all Israelis continue to share in this hard chapter of Israel's struggle for peace and quiet.