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.


  1. If "only the owner of a passport may see his own document," why did Kastner's granddaughter have the authority to let you see his?

    This kind of loose language in law and regulation makes it very difficult for family researchers to get at documents, as the bureaucrats do whatever they please.

    And how is a person whose father or grabdfather had a common name able to tell if a particular document is his, without seeing it?

  2. IsraelP - note taken. We will try and re-check these problems.